Learning to Face Death

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
(Act IV, Scene V, Line 33)

 

Over the past 24 hours, 19 Victorians died as a result of COVID-19. In light of the volume of new cases that we are seeing, many more Victorians will die from this terrible virus over the coming days and weeks. Each and every single one of these people is a life to be mourned.

Victoria averages between 3000-4000 deaths per month, from all kinds of causes. That’s over 300 people dying every day in our State. Each of them is a loss to our community and is cause for grief.

Julie Power, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald (‘Even in a pandemic, most people shun talk about death and dying’, August 11), has highlighted how Australians are “reluctant to think about death or make plans for how they want to go.”

According to a recent survey conducted among 1,100 people in NSW, 70% of Australians prefer to avoid addressing the issue of death.

Power’s suggests that “The deaths of older Australians alone and isolated from friends and families during the pandemic highlights the need to talk about what constitutes a good death.”

I agree, we need to talk. We appreciate that such conversations are difficult at the best of times. Who among us is keen to discuss our final days and to make decisions about funerals? Contemplating death is altogether horrible, even more, when we are considering people we know and love. Death is, to quote the Bible, ‘the last enemy’.

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Unlike most cultures for much of history, we have managed to sanitise death with our modern medicines, clean white sheets and closed doors. We have successfully delayed death through vast improvements in medicine and technology, with greater standards of livings, by educating people about health, and through legislating thousands of laws guarding public and workplace safety. Despite all this, we cannot account for the unexpected accident, a natural disaster, or the coming of a pandemic. Even when we evade such tragedy, our bodies have been in motion since birth, taking the road of gradual deterioration and decline.

One thing this pandemic has proven is how much we wish to rage against the dying light, to fight and resist it with all our might. Death is not a friend, it is an enemy to struggle against.

It is one thing to have discussions about dying well, as Julie Power is urging, but it is quite another to die with or without hope. Hope doesn’t evade death, and neither does it remove painful grief, but it makes all the difference in the world.

A young mum whom I knew, died from ovarian cancer on August 1st. She grew up with an atheistic worldview, but when confronted with cancer and receiving a poor prognosis, she began asking questions and searching for hope. Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus. This wasn’t Christianity offering her a placebo in the face of death, but her becoming convinced about the reality, goodness, and certainty of the Christian Gospel.

“he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

    from all faces;” (Isaiah 25:8)

There is never a good time to talk about death. Conversations about funeral arrangements and taking care of those who remain behind are important. These are difficult discussions we need to have with close family members; not because death is imminent for most of us, but because we do not know when the hour will come.

As a Pastor of a Church, it is my great privilege to spend time with people who are facing their final days on the earth and to sit with grieving families in their homes and to stand with them at the graveside. The question of hope is rarely left alone as people grapple with the reality of the grave.

On one occasion Jesus arrived at the home of his friend Lazarus, who had died some four days earlier. Visiting the tomb of his friend, we read what is the shortest sentence in the entire Bible,  “Jesus wept”. Mingled with grief, Jesus also spoke confidently of hope, not only for Lazarus but for all who look to him.

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Melbourne: State of Disaster

The world’s most liveable city is now largely deserted. Her 4.9 million residents are now required to stay in their homes, apart from a few limited and important reasons.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday afternoon declared a State of Disaster. The streets are now largely empty, office blocks abandoned, schools and universities closed, and the roads eerily quiet. There was no slow procession of peak hour traffic outside my home this morning.

The trams are running empty of passengers and our sporting stadiums have turned into relics to a yesterday that we long to return.

As of last night, there is now a curfew in place. No one is allowed to drive, walk or cycle, in their suburbs from 8pm until 5am. The curfew along Level 4 restrictions will continue until at least September 13th.

 

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The last 5 months have been challenging and I expect the next 6 weeks will be even more difficult. Many Melbournians are already tired and anxious. Any prolonged disruption to ‘normal life’ brings with it stresses; how much more when even the basic elements are put on hold. I feel for the 100,000s plus students trying to study for their VCE during this lockdown. The economic uncertainties are real and not going to be easily fixed. The Victorian economy is losing $1 billion each week and with thousands more losing their jobs.

Melbourne is my home. I was born here, went to school and studied at university here. Susan and I married in Camberwell. After 4 years of exile (in Sydney) we returned and have since lived, worked, and raised our children in Mentone.

The experience is new to almost all of Melbourne’s residents. It is certainly my first time to live in a city with a curfew and where leaving ones home may result in a visit from the police. Thousands are defence force personnel are also patrolling our suburbs and checking on residents. It is a strange and dystopian view.

I don’t want to exaggerate; while no one wants to be in this position many people seem to be doing ok. Life is different, and at times annoying but overall they’re doing pretty well. I also appreciate that many other Melbournians are becoming frustrated and even angry. I have noted how even our  ‘progressive’ leaning media outlets are now turning on the State Government. I’m not going to pretend that the pandemic has been handled perfectly by Governments or the people alike. Isn’t that part of the reality of facing new and extraordinary times? Our fallibilities our exposed, our best efforts fall short, and the stubbornness of others intrudes to the detriment of others.

I am though urging my fellow Melbournians to adhere to the new rules. This isn’t about asserting personal rights, listening to idiotic theories, or playing political games. Most of us recognise that mistakes have been made. Had people done the right thing and had authorities better-equipped personnel during hotel quarantine we may not be in the position we are now facing. There is a time for those conversations, but now, we need to focus on following the law and looking out for the vulnerable, the anxious, and the lonely.

Our Church is praying regularly our Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Cabinet, for Premier Daniel Andrews and his Cabinet, and for those health officials giving advice each day. This is important.

This pandemic has already taken lives. It has forced many thousands to reconfigure their lives because of illness or financial hardship. Stories coming out of age care homes are horrific. The mental and social toll is near impossible to measure. Dare I suggest, not as a pessimist but as a realist, more difficult days lay ahead. Once Level 4 restrictions are lifted there were will be 4.9 million sighs of relief. The audible heave, however, won’t blow away other restrictions that will remain for some time. The economic toll for thousands of businesses will be devastating, and we don’t yet know the cost that is being born by our children.

We’re not fighting to rid ourselves of COVID-19, but to control it; according to the Victorian Government we are trying to uncover the source for 100s of mystery cases and to control (or eliminate?) community transmissions. Melbourne will come through to the other side, bruised and changed, but we will make it. But even as we stagger to our feet there is an even greater threat looming over our shoulders, namely that of an authoritarian and hungry red dragon. Could this dystopian season be but the first chapter of more to come?

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute advises the Federal Government and also informs the Australian public about the rapidly growing issue of Communist China. In an interview last week, Michael Shoebridge noted that Government military and strategic plans for the 2030s are being fast tracked for employment now. There is growing consensus that conflict in the region within months is not only possible but is now “credible”.

Melbourne has enjoyed a long summer: 75 years of tremendous progress, pleasure, and safety. There have been interruptions, but nothing like this.

Ecclesiastes ch.3 reminds us that there are many times in life. Not every season continues into perpetuity.

“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

   a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

  a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

  a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

   a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.”

 

Melbournians, for the most part, have grown up with the belief that we deserve our choice of the above times, and that those other experiences are what happens to people in other parts of the world. We are now learning that not even the world’s most liveable city is exempt.

Only a few sentences later the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “He has also set eternity in the human heart”.

Each new day is preparation for eternity; Melbourne has too often failed the test. We’ve been caught out. We can’t rely upon our prosperity, security, and health, to see us through; they are unreliable gods. This is a time where our deepest desires and most earnest hopes are being tested. If the world’s most liveable place cannot make certain our hopes and security, where must we look?

Psalm 62 takes us to one whom Melbourne believed was no longer necessary. And yet, this God remains the one firm foundation we have:

“Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault me?
Would all of you throw me down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

Surely they intend to topple me
from my lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
my hope comes from him.

Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.

10 Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,

12     and with you, Lord, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
according to what they have done.” (Psalm 62)

A young Victorian mum has died and is now with Christ

A young Chinese woman with a little girl started attending Mentone Baptist Church three years ago. She was battling cancer and had decided that she needed answers. It is one thing to understand a medical diagnosis, but accompanying such devastating news are other and even bigger questions. Why me? What is life meant to be about? Is there a God who is interested and cares?

backlit cemetery christianity clouds

Christine grew up in a family and culture that was atheistic, and she assumed that this was the way to view the world. A highly intelligent and capable woman, being informed that she had terminal cancer broke apart what she believed to be true about the world

Suffering didn’t reinforce her atheism, it led her to seek out God. In learning about the person and work of Jesus Christ, she didn’t feel repulsed or angry at God for her cancer, rather her life was transformed by the beauty and warmth of Jesus.

Christine quickly made friends with several of the women at church and started attending a Bible study group.

In early 2019 it was evident that the cancer would take her life. She battled on while recognising the awful and difficult path she was taking.

In Christine’s own words,

With the time I spent more with bible group, i started to be more curious about Jesus Christ. As I said before, I used to live that hard and trying that much to prove myself and now I had cancer. My whole life was ruined. If there is a God, could Jesus give me a new life.

Just at that time, my cancer was coming back again, only 1 and half year time after the operation and chemo. I was shocked and felt lost. The doctor told me that  I had no chance to be cured. I was too tired, I had been tried that hard to stand up. I just got the chance to see the light of new life.

Different from last time, I thought of Jesus Christ almost immediately. I remembered in the Luke, Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” That probably was my first real pray from the bottom of my heart, I kept asking Jesus Christ to save me and hoped he could guide me and change me if I had done anything bad and wrong. I realized no one could help me now except Jesus Christ.”

Her young body was failing. There were days when getting out of bed was impossible. Although her body was terribly weakened by the cancer, she wanted to publicly profess her faith in Christ through baptism. With a couple of Christine’s friends from church, it was my great joy and privilege to sit with her in her home: listening and sharing, hearing her story and encouraging her with the Scriptures. It was clear that she was convinced about the Gospel and now knew and loved Jesus.

We spoke about baptising her in her home, but she wanted to show the world the difference Jesus made. Even the night before we were unsure whether Christine would be well enough to leave her house and come to the church.

That Sunday morning in April 2019, Christine stood in front of the church and spoke about what the Lord Jesus had done for her, and how despite her suffering, she was safe in him.

She shared,

“I now believe and trust Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, knowing that even though I denied him for past 30 years, he died on the cross for my sins and is willing to forgive me. I know that God has accepted me as his daughter and loves me.

I am still in the middle of treatment, reading God’s words every day is motivating me to continue to trust him and rely on him. I still feel scared and worry about my cancer sometimes. The difference is I have God to rely on and he is willing to take my worry. More exciting is I find my life is changing slowly, I am spending more time with my friends and family. I am not willing to spend time being angry anymore, because I appreciate every single day God gives to me.

I am so weak and little in this world, and I used to be  a terrible person, but God loves me and I now love him and I can trust him for the future.”

Christine then stood in the pool with me. I asked the same two questions that we ask everyone who is getting baptised,

“Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son who died on the cross for your sins and who was raised to life to give you new life?”

“Have you repented of your sins and are trusting Jesus for salvation, and with His help will you follow him all the days of your life?”

With a confident yes to both questions, Christine went through waters of baptism, signalling to family, friends, and the church, Jesus had redeemed her and gifted her eternal hope.

It was one of those moments a pastor never forgets. I suspect no one present that morning will ever forget.

Not long after, she needed to move to another part of the city and so connected with another church, although she was never well enough to attend. They have supported in her final months. Her mum and dad have since both become Christians and have stayed by her side throughout this entire journey. Christine also remained close friends with several people at Mentone, who have supported her right through to the end.

In the early hours of this morning, Christine lost her fight against cancer and but with Christ, she has triumphed over death. The Apostle Paul’s belief, “to be away from the body is to be with the Lord”, is right now her experience. She no longer lives by faith but with sight.

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Christine’s name and life won’t be mentioned in the news today, and that’s ok. Deaths resulting from COVID-19 are understandably making news each day.  Death is however always with us, even when it is taking place away from the public gaze. She was one of many Victorians who today have died from cancer or from other afflictions. Yet, her life and story have impacted the people who knew her. Her testimony will remain with us at Mentone Baptist Church, and encouraging us to place our hope in the only Saviour there is.

Christine has finished her race and has received from her Lord and God the crown of righteousness. For those who are left behind the grief is palpable. It is intense, and I can only imagine the difficult days that lay ahead for Christine’s daughter especially, and also for her parents and closest friends. One thing I do know, we don’t grieve as those without hope. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)

Jesus once asked Martha,

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Christine’s answer was, ‘yes’.

I wonder, where are other Victorians are placing their hope?

Giving Jesus a bad name

“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak”

 

It’s hard enough persuading Aussies about the wonder, truth and goodness of Jesus Christ without Christians mucking it up. We can have a hundred churches faithfully and lovingly speaking and living out His Gospel, but the foolishness of a few can quickly undo much good.

Let me begin by reminding ourselves, Jesus wasn’t exactly a popular guy in the first century AD. Crowds were drawn to him because of his memorable speeches and because of his miraculous deeds, but scarcely did they love him. In fact, the culture’s leaders conspired to have Jesus arrested, put him on trial in a kangaroo court and then killed in the most gruesome and public manner ever invented by humanity. As they did this, the crowds cheered on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Down the centuries and in every culture that has had contact with Christianity, Jesus Christ has been controversial. To many, he has been recognised as the Son of God, the resurrected Lord, and the only Saviour of the world. Through faith, this Jesus has destroyed great evil, removed personal sin and guilt, and has gifted new lives, new communities, and transformed cultures in ways that we continue to benefit from today. Much of what we have today is the result of this Jesus who changes beliefs, attitudes, and lives.

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Jesus Christ remains a controversial figure in the world of 2020. Many people allege a liking for Jesus…until they read and understand things like the cross, God’s justice, and his claims of Lordship. In other words, a Jesus that we mould into our own image is likeable. This kind of Jesus is given special mention in our ripostes against organised religion and in our sermons that espouse the latest moral dictums.

But as Jesus himself said,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 17:18-25)

People will often accept a God who conforms to their own heart’s desires, but without Divine grace, they will find the God and Father of Jesus Christ repellent. As Jesus explains the world’s response to him, he includes a word for those who follow him; the world will hate them.

This idea of societal suspicion and even rejection of Christianity and Christian people is one of the regular reminders in the New Testament. Christians shouldn’t be surprised when there is backlash for believing the Gospel and for affirming God’s ways as good and true. This reaction is quite normal.

However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.

Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.

Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California. Thousands of Christians from all over the world look up to this church and to their Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. His many decades of ministry has been a source of encouragment for significant numbers of Christian men and women, including here in Australia. Last week, the Elders of Grace Community Church decided to defy local Government orders and return to their normal Sunday services.

Before casting stones it is important to read the statement by the Elders at Grace Community, and also to read this response published on 9Marks.org by Jonathan Leeman. I concur with Leeman’s reflections, which in summary includes a general agreement with the theological convictions of Grace Community but disagreement over how they have applied these beliefs. For example, Lehman suggests,

“I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.” 

There are serious threats to religious freedom in our societies. With an increasingly secularised and polarised culture, there are reasons for believing life will become more difficult for Christians exercising their belief and practices. Is this pandemic really one of those issues?

Leeman again,

“Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors?”

Leeman also suggested,

“What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19.”

This is correct. Indeed photographs of their ‘triumphal’ return to Church last Sunday reinforces this message that COVID-19 is not the serious disease medical experts and Government authorities are communicating. Whether this was intended or not, this was the effect.

Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?

Let’s take an example closer to home. A Christian school in Melbourne has today made the news for what was a stupid and unnecessary reason: they are demanding students to only wear face masks that match their school uniform and school colours. I think SBS is throwing a cheap shot at the school; this is hardly worthy of national news, and yet it now is.  A Christian school has made a needless decision that adds to the pointless growing number of examples of Christians making an unnecessary stand.

In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?

More serious are Christians who repeat and give oxygen to conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19. Stop it, repent, and stop taking the Lord’ name in vain. The pandemic is difficult enough with medical experts trying to understand the nature of this terrible virus and how to best combat it, without armchair experts encouraging rumours, gossip, slander, and other sinful speech. I understand how some Government messaging is confusing and how medical opinion has at times conflicted. I appreciate that these serious restrictions are uncomfortable and difficult. But as a Christian, I am to honour and obey those in authority, even when I disagree with them. I am to love my neighbours, and I am not to create stumbling blocks for people. Aussies are already resistant to the Gospel of Christ without me building extra walls blocking out the beauty and glory of God that shines in the face of Christ.

Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.

In this year of grave uncertainty and instability, of growing anxiety and fear, we as Christians have the greatest message of hope to offer our neighbours. Let it not get lost in the midst of needless biases, prejudices, and preferences.

As the Apostle said to the Colossians, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Australians don’t need to hear every thought and every theory that is gurgling around in our stomachs. They don’t need us to insist upon every tertiary preference. They need us to be wise, full of grace and adding salt (which is the Gospel not our speculative thoughts on immunology).

 


Here is an interview on Fox news with John MacArthur explaining their decision

A new course exploring Christianity

Making Sense of Christianity is a new course designed to present and explain the message of Christianity.

It’s starting in 6 days time (July 28th, 7:3pm)

The 4 week course examines some of the biggest questions of life:

  1. God and the universe
  2. Humanity, sin, and death
  3. Jesus Christ
  4. Christians and the church

The material is written by a Melbournian (me) and for Melbournians

To register, email Murray at pastor@mentonebaptist.com.au

Make sure you include your name, contact details, name of church (if you attend one), and why you’re interested in doing the course.

Check out the intro video

 

The Hagia Sophia Marks History

The Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s most recognised and beautiful buildings. It is deservedly a Unesco World Heritage site.

I have yet to visit the truly extraordinary city of Istanbul and to walk inside this magnificent architecture along the narrows of the Bosphorus.  I have dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above. This Museum is no more.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to change the Hagia Sophia. A Turkish Court has given the green light for annulling the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum and to turning it once more into a Mosque. The Hagia Sophia has been a museum for nearly a century. Beforehand it was a Mosque. The Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 saw the building converted from a church into a Mosque. Prior to the Ottoman invasion, the Hagia Sophia stood as a Christian Church for almost 1,000 years. 

President Erdogan has signalled that “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”. 

The first Muslim prayers will return to the Hagia Sophia on July 24th.

To be clear, I am not arguing against museums being transformed into mosques. There is another and more significant point to highlight about this historic decision. The return of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque illustrates the shifting cultural confidence around the world in 2020.

For 3,000 years Istanbul has stood at the world’s crossroads; it is where East meets West. For millennia this ancient city has witnessed civilisations rise and fall. While Turkey is no longer considered one of the world’s great powers, its geographical location remains significant. More so, the Hagia Sophia is symbolic of the global fault lines between East and West, and between Islam and cultural Christianity. 

Turkey is but one of a growing number of States who are observing a fractured, disillusioned, and weakened West. The United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Australia, are pre occupied with internal culture wars that are quite literally tearing societies apart. Our politics is becoming increasingly divided and schismatic, our public figures are running fast to the extremities of left and right, and cancel culture is ready to devour any who cross the wrong line. What makes this venture more problematic is how the line continually moves. No one knows from one week to the next what the accept orthodoxy is, and yet everyone understands that stepping over this chalk line amounts to reputational suicide. In public discourse there exists little good will and common ground is rare to find. In the space of a few short years, western nations have dismantled their societies more successfully than two World Wars.

Unsurprisingly, this growing tribalism is creating disillusionment with mainstream politics, corporate identity games, and with the higher education sector. When we add a serious pandemic to the equation and the question of Climate Change, it is no wonder people are becoming anxious, depressed, and even despairing of hope itself. Internal fighting doesn’t build strong communities and resilient nations. But like the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.

There is an audible crescendoing confidence to despise Western culture. After all, when the West is itself setting fire to its past, this hardly discourages the rest of the world to embrace Western ideals. It is unlikely that China would be acting so confidently in Hong Kong had this not been the case. And for President Erdogan, the time is ripe for him to reinforce his Islamic credentials and to turn away from the fruits of Europe, which Turkey temporality found itself wanting to enjoy.

Of course, over here in the West the left will blame the right and the right will throw insults at the left. The reality is, in different ways both are responsible. When we pursue wealth at the cost of character, should we be surprised that people eventually object? When sexual identity becomes the primary definition of self worth, should we be shocked when the basic units of community are crushed?

20 years ago the United States was esteemed by most people around the world. Today, many of her own citizens despite her and want her institutions and constitution dismantled. Australia has not faired as negatively as our important ally, but we are not far behind. Our lackadaisical attitude and geographical remoteness has probably saved us from some of the sharpest barbs thus far, but these ‘qualities’ are no long term strategy for survival and prosperity.

I don’t think we can downplay the significance of President Erdogan’s decision.  History has turned on the changing Hagia Sophia and may well do so again.

It must be said though, lest we mess up Christian theology and witness, the church is not its building. The Church is the people, the body of Christ who are covenanted to one another and who congregate in the same space for mutual edification, discipleship, and love. A Church can just as successfully meet in a Cathedral as it can in a community hall or family lounge room. 

Gospel witness will not suffer as a result of returning this once church building back into a mosque. It does however serve as a reminder for churches to not take for granted the time we have to live and serve and to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

For Christian Churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, we must reform our ways, putting out trust in Christ and our hope in his Gospel. Churches desperately need Gospel conviction, clarity, and courage. This is not about slowing the rot in the West, but pointing people to the only certain hope there is. 

Churches are too often complicate in cultural syncretism and spiritual apostasy. When Churches find themselves too close to the halls of power, the temptation to accommodate is strong. Other churches are desperate to find their place and so will sacrifice almost anything for acceptance. 

The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made this interesting observation about English churches (and the same could be said of Churches here in Australia),

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Whether it is claiming that President Trump is God’s ordained man or suggesting he is the antiChrist, whether it’s worshipping unfettered capitalism or preaching the gospel of  progressivism, too often Churches have sold their soul, betrayed Christ, and become the weakling and insipid shells that they are today. Much repentance is required. And praise God for the many churches who remain faithful in word and deed; they are precious to God and are wonderful outposts to eternal things.

Kingdoms come and go. Superpowers are made and they fade or are destroyed. It has always been the case. Buildings are created and they too eventually decay and crumble. According to Jesus Christ, the one entity that will last is his Church. 

“ I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).

It is sad to see the Hagia Sophia morph once again. Knowing what this decision embodies mustn’t be missed. In all this, one thing is certain, 

“my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10-11)

Was Jesus Perfect?

CNN’s Don Lemon yesterday interviewed New York State Governor, Andrew Cuomo. During the conversation on racism, statues, and slavery, Mr Lemon came out with this rather bold assertion about Jesus,

“But here’s the thing, Jesus Christ, if you believe — if that’s what you believe in, Jesus Christ, admittedly, was not perfect when he was here on this Earth.”

Mr Lemon was using Jesus as an example of why it’s wrong to ‘deify’ America’s founders. He continued,

“So why are we deifying the fathers of this country, many of whom owned slaves, and in the Constitution – the original one – they didn’t want — they put slavery in there, that slavery should be abolished because it was the way the king wanted.”

In other words, if Jesus wasn’t perfect why should Americans regard their founding fathers so highly? Leaving aside the strained parallel, I’d like to ask Don Lemon this straight forward question, can you show us how Jesus was ‘not perfect when he was here on earth’? Name one thing Jesus ever said or did that was faulty or was sinful?

I am certainly interested to hear how Mr Lemon will substantiate his allegation.

When I define Jesus through my own fallible lens, I might assume that Jesus made mistakes. After all, if Jesus is just like me he must have made a bucket full or errors and transgressions. But here lies the problem. Jesus is simultaneously like us and he is unlike us.

Jesus is like us in that he is fully human. He ate, slept, and went to the toilet, he worked and knew tiredness, he expressed happiness and humour, and he experienced great suffering. He died.

Jesus is unlike us in two important ways.

First of all, Jesus is also fully God. His miracles, words, compassion, and forgiveness served to reveal his identity, power, and purpose as God the Son.

He is described in Colossians as the One who created all things and who has Divine power and authority to uphold the universe, 

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

Mr Lemon may not believe or accept the biblical testimony, which might explain his bizarre comment. However, all the different strains of evidence, come to the same conclusion:

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13)

Second, as a human Jesus is what we are not, without sin. He is the sinless one who always did what was right and good, and always said what was true and loving, and always acted in purity and affection.

The testimony of Jesus friends and enemies alike is that he never did any wrong. At his trial, the judge announced Jesus to be innocent and yet sentenced him to death in order to appease the mob and the social censures of the day.

The testimony of the Scriptures insist upon Jesus’ moral and spiritual perfection, 

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

This faultless living doesn’t suggest he was an artificial person. The book of Hebrews testifies to something far more necessary and extraordinary, 

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:10-18)

It is the fact that Jesus experienced the traumas of this world, and was tempted but resisted, that he can empathise with us. Here is a God with understanding. That he remained faithful to his character and purpose also proves Jesus was qualified to serve as Saviour. Jesus not only sympathises but he saves.

Don Lemon did highlight a stark and odious sin that was present among some of America’s Founding Fathers; slavery. The reality is, every human institution is going to have its limitations and frailties, even the very best. Governments, political systems, and every of social entity can do good and serve the betterment of communities, but they are not meant to reign as our saviour. Only one who is perfect can take on that role. Only one demonstrated the necessary qualities, and only one was able and willing to lay down his life on the cross, to take on the sins of the world.

Thank God Jesus was perfect, when he was on the earth. Thank God he remains perfect, the one true and sufficient Saviour that our hurting world needs.

Should the Church of England remove its images of Jesus?

History is littered with iconoclasts, from the Babylonians to the Romans, from Henry VIII to the Puritans, from ISIS and now to Justin Welby. 

It wasn’t so many years ago that Christians faced ridicule for decrying art and film that depicted Jesus Christ in mocking ways. Netflix’s, ‘The First Temptation of Christ’ came out only one year ago. I was only a kid at the time, but Melbournians still remember the controversial ‘Piss Christ’ that hung in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Christians were scorned for their protests and narrow-minded bigotry toward popular expressions of human thought and creativity. Expressions of Jesus and of God are more than permissible, they are lauded no matter how grotesque and inaccurate they are.

How quickly the culture turns.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has just announced that the Church of England will reconsider hundreds of statues and portraits that portray Jesus Christ, Mary, and other Biblical figures. The reason for this break with centuries of tradition?  They are too white. The Archbishop’s statement is a direct response to the Black Lives Matter Movement that is sweeping around the world. Statues around the world are toppling faster than in a game of 10 pin bowling.

To be clear, racism is real and there are legitimate concerns relating to how people of different ethnicities are treated. In Australia, racism is not as widespread as some would have us believe and it is more commonplace than many others appreciate. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Shai Linne’s story that was recently published by The Gospel Coalition. There is also an important conversation to be had in Australia about our ignorance of indigenous history.

I think there is a valid argument for removing statues of people who were involved in the slave trade or were slave owners. It’s also important to note here in Australia, while there are voices calling for monuments to go and for names to change, some indigenous leaders are arguing that these concrete and marble edifices should remain.

Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt has spoken against the removal of statues,

“I don’t believe removing statues contributes positively to this conversation”.

“These statues should remain as a reminder of a point in time in our lives – even when detrimental. They serve as prompts to encourage people to talk about history.”

“As Indigenous Australians we have sought to have the true history of this nation told so that it reflects both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and history.”

While some of the targeted statues represent person directly involved in slavery, other historical monuments been vandalised have either distant connections with slavery and at times, none. 

In America, General Ulysses Grant may have led the Union army to victory over the Confederacy but that’s not enough for saving from the spray paint, rope, and hammer. Rioters even defaced a statue of Matthias Baldwin, a figure involved in the abolitionist movement!

In the United Kingdom, the famed statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn was last week defaced, despite the fact that he lived 400 years before the infamous slave trade.

The University of Liverpool is now considering renaming Gladstone Hall, not because the former Prime Minister was involved in slavery but because his father owned slaves.

It’s not only public edifices that are facing demise; the prophetic title, ’Gone with the Wind’ has come to pass, shows on Netflix are being removed, the children’s cartoon, ’Paw Control’ is in trouble for depicting police through the positive prism of a friendly dog. Another Australian beer (‘Colonial’), has found itself being removed from bottle shops. And perhaps with a note of irony, one of the world’s most progress leaning newspapers, ‘The Guardian’, is also facing the shredding machine because of its connections with slavery in the 19th Century. The Guardian’s founder, John Edward Taylor, was a slave owner and during the American Civil War, the paper opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Union.

History, including our Australian history, is a complex mix of the good and the evil, the noble and the ignominious. Past generations were either blind to or supportive of sins in their day, as will future generations look upon us with horror at some of the practices we have embraced. Understanding history requires humility, not hubris. Appreciating the pain experienced by people in our communities requires patient listening and wise reflection.

Others are making the point, rather than destroying history, is it not better to relocate genuinely offensive sculptures to a more appropriate setting, perhaps a Museum?

What about Churches? Many a Puritan in heaven is probably saying right now, “well, we did tell you”.

Many church artefacts have historical significance, and some have artistic and cultural importance. I may be an iconoclast, but I’m not a Philistine! Even Baptists can appreciate art and history. I love visiting Westminster Abbey and soaking up history and listening to exquisite music. Unfortunately, it’s not good theology that has finally caught up with the Church of England but woke culture that is forcing the arm of this now largely derelict institution. What a sad indictment on a church who ignored centuries of preachers and pastors calling for reforms. I’m not saying that we should ignore cultural shifts when they come knocking, but churches should not succumb to mob rule. This is what has led to today’s confrontation on the doorstep of Canterbury.

It’s not all bad. Indeed, there is merit in reevaluating the presence and prominence of many church figurines and works of art. After all, Christianity is a religion of the word. We worship a God who cannot be seen, not a God who is represented by the artist’s brushstroke or chisel.

If there is to be repentance about Christian iconography, it should be less about a particular cultural expression of Jesus Christ, and more about the fact that our religious forebears thought it a great idea to depict Jesus at all.

As the Church of England evaluates the objects and art that adorns her beautiful buildings, I hope they realise that this won’t be an easy fix. Justin Welby is mistaken if he believes that removing a few statues of an Anglo- Saxon Jesus will appease the broader narrative that is taking hold of the West. Cultural vigilantes either don’t know how far to go or they are fully cognizant of their intentions, which in some cases seems to be the dismantling of western culture. Addressing racism is, as far as Christians are concerned, a Gospel issue. Agitating for the complete destruction of our history and of Western values is quite another story.

I can foresee the situation where there will be very little left in Westminster Abbey and many an English Cathedral. Once all the sinners will have their names scratched out and their memorials removed, what will the glorious buildings have to offer?

Western civilisation has always been a faulty tower; it is, after all, built by sinful human hands and imaginations. At the same time, there is much good to be found and these are goods that have come about because of Christianity. The imago dei and therefore equality of all people, secularism and religious freedom, the scientific revolution, the music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, hospitals, universities and orphanages, are all flowers born out the Christian worldview. This is certainly a vast improvement on the alternatives that are built without reference to Christianity (cf. North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia).

However, we never conflate the Kingdom of God with the West, that is a tragic mistake which needs to be repented of in parts of even Australian Church thinking.  Part of the dynamism of the Church is her ability to make a home across cultures. Language is no barrier. National borders are not an inhibitor. The Church is not the Church of Germany or England, Africa or Asia; it is the Church belonging to Jesus Christ. 

So what are we to make of Anglo-Saxon versions of Jesus Christ? It shouldn’t need saying but just in case, Jesus wasn’t Scandinavian. He wasn’t an Englishman or an Italian. Neither is Jesus American or Australian. Jesus was Jewish, as was Mary and the first disciples. If anything Jesus was more brown than white, and he had dark hair and he was circumcised. This Narazene, however, came into the world for his own people and for the nations.  This Jesus born in Bethlehem, who is the eternal God, is the Lord over the nations.

“Great and marvelous are your deeds,

    Lord God Almighty.

Just and true are your ways,

    King of the nations.

Who will not fear you, Lord,

    and bring glory to your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come

    and worship before you,

for your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15)

This King of the nations theme is first indicated in the covenantal promises to Abraham. Further details are revealed as the Old Testament progresses. With the birth of Jesus Christ, the Kingly theme finds fulfilment: He is the Saviour of the world. He is the one whose Gospel goes to the nations. It is his Gospel that has Divine power to save both Jew and Gentile.

The real and living Jesus, as opposed to the artist’s imagination, was born of a particular ethnicity and he transcends ethnicity. In this sense, there can be an argument for representing Jesus as white, or as brown or black or yellow. He is the Jewish Messiah who will bring healing to the nations. As the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Colossians,  In Christ,

“there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

Here lies the good news message that brings death to racism. On this, I do believe Justin Welby and myself are in agreement.

It is not Western civilisation that will ultimately win, no more than it will be Persian, Chinese, Ethiopian, or Greek. Jesus both supersedes culture and he will transform culture. Indeed, despite being profoundly indebted to this Christian message, Anglo-Saxon societies are gradually moving away toward atheistic secularism and even toward old fashion paganism and panentheism. It is across Africa and China, in Brazil and Iran that Christianity is growing at tremendous rates. In this single message of forgiveness and love, people of all colours are finding home and hope.

My advice is, let’s give up trying to make Jesus’ out of concrete, stone, and paint. Let objects of historical or artistic value be taken to a museum. A Church is no place for icons, lest of course Westminster and Canterbury qualify as museums rather than places for Christian worship. Instead, let’s speak the message of Christ in the languages of the world that everyone might hear of the true King who reconciles sinners, dismantles racism, and creates unending peace.

Here’s a vision worth preaching,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2)

Making Sense of Christianity

A new course exploring Christianity is coming to Melbourne.

‘Making Sense of Christianity’ is written by a Melbournian and for Melbournians. In each episode, Murray explores some of the big questions of life:

1. God and the universe

2. Humanity, Sin, and death

3. Jesus Christ

4. Christians and the Church

For further details and to register, please email pastor@mentonebaptist.com.au

 

The Search for Christian Authenticity

I first came across Gregorian Chants when I was 18 years of age. I was studying first year music at university. Straight away I became entranced by the sounds of these monastic choirs. I similarly appreciate the Cantatas of J.S Bach. Although composed 300 years ago, these are beautiful sonnets to God. It is one thing to listen to the Cantatas on my Spotify playlist, but it is quite another experience to sit in a cathedral and hear a choir and orchestra sing in front of you.

At the same time, I wouldn’t want my local church using these musical forms during our Sunday services, for a variety of both theological and pragmatic reasons. For starters, we don’t speak or understand either Latin or German; if we can’t understand the words we shouldn’t sing them.

 

people sitting on brown wooden chair

Photo by Shvets Anna on Pexels.com

The ABC has published a revealing article this weekend, noting a surge of young adults turning away from contemporary churches and toward more traditional church.

“Gregorian chants, renaissance choral music and incense wafting from a metallic censer.

In an era when Kanye West runs gospel-inspired services, and megachurches, like Hillsong, release chart-topping hits, these ancient Christian traditions are, unexpectedly, having a moment.

And they’re not just resonating with older generations, either.

Younger people are flocking to late-night Latin Mass — at least they were pre-COVID — and embracing Christian orthodoxy in online spaces.

So says Tara Isabella Burton, America-based author of the forthcoming book Strange Rites and a member of the self-proclaimed “Weird Christian” movement.

The allure of Weird Christianity goes beyond an espousal of the Bible. Burton says the otherworldly nature of religious rituals are also appealing to the young and disillusioned.

“There’s a sense of enchantment that often comes with the pageantry,” says Burton, who attends St Ignatius of Antioch in New York City, part of the Episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic tradition.

“It’s that sense that this is a sacred place and not just another thing you do in your week, the same way you might go to a SoulCycle class or you might go out to dinner with friends.”

I have witnessed first hand a few young adults who are thinking this way. They believe older equals authentic, and tradition indicates genuine Christianity. The logic is,  if we can work our way back to the past we somehow become more like the early churches and therefore we are having a genuine Christian experience. The way to be really close to God is to embrace the old. This phenomenon isn’t only about embracing the old, it is about turning off the new. There are millennials seeing through popular Christianity with its accommodation of mainstream culture and its compromise on Christian teachings that don’t suit a consumer audience. 

There is something astute about this revelation. The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made a similar observation although about English Bishops,

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Like giving Coke away to kids, the caffeine and sugar in some of the trending churches is addictive, but it leaves you hungry and needing to pay a visit to the Dentist. It’s one thing to recognise a weakness in one presentation of church, but jumping from one unhelpful extreme to another is not the answer.

It is a truism that churches focusing on contemporary production can be theologically shallow and even spiritually misleading. At the same time, many traditional churches give similar attention to production quality and can also be doctrinally unorthodox.

Reverend Dries, of Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney, advocates for an ‘older’ style of church. He highlights (perhaps unwittingly) a crucial flaw in what these young people are wanting in a church.

“It’s not theatre, but there’s certainly an element of drama,” he says, pointing to the candles, incense and elaborate liturgical wear that feature in services.

“We sing music here that goes back to the Middle Ages — Gregorian chants — and renaissance choral music, so we rely on young people, who are very involved in those things.”

Reverend Dries believes that Anglo-Catholicism has an “element of mystery about it” that can be missing from everyday life or other religious practices.

“Some of our young people come from a more evangelical tradition, which is sort of word-based and very long sermons or improvised prayers,” he explains.

“I think for some people … there sometimes comes a point where they can’t deal with words anymore, and there’s this genuine desire to enter into silence, mystery, music and ritual.”

One of the issues here is that Christianity is a word based religion. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus reveals God. The written word of God reveals God. God is not found in the silence but in his word. The Bible itself calls on churches to make the ministry of the word central to its life.

devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” ( 1 Timothy 4:13)

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

Also, the separation of music from word ministry is a false dichotomy. According to the New Testament, music is a part of the ministry of the word, not separate from it. If you believe a certain musical style connects you to God in a more authentic experience, and the preaching of the word does not, then it’s not Christianity you are holding onto but a form of neo-gnosticism.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)

As I read the piece on the ABC and have spoken with several young people wrestling with these issues, the question is, are we looking for a religious experience or are we worshipping God? Are we determining the efficacy of the experience by what appeals to our senses or by what God has spoken in his word?

Of course, no single style of church fits all, but a 19th or 13th century version of doing church is no more Christian than is the church who adopts the latest pop genres. This may sound strange to some readers who belong to evangelical churches but the point needs stating: You can be a truly orthodox Christian without being a member of the orthodox church. You can be a truly catholic Christian without joining Rome. In fact, believing older is closer to the original is a dangerous misnomer. Assuming that tradition equates to a more full version of Christianity can lean toward gnosticism and to a disconnecting from the head (Col 2:19).

And if one is to join one of these historical denominations, which version of older is more authentic? Do we choose Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox or Ethiopian Orthodox or Roman Catholic? And among each of these options which type of orthodox or Catholicism will we choose, for there are many and varied branches belonging to each of these tribes?

For hundreds of years churches never sang Gregorian Chants,  the clergy didn’t wear vestments and there were no high altars or gothic structures. Incense and candles were used in Old Testament cultic services but they didn’t feature in the earliest churches, and there is certainly no instruction for their use in the New Testament. What these millennials assume is authentic church is, in fact, a product of the slow development of medieval Christianity.

I am encouraged to hear that there are many young adults recognising a superficiality in some contemporary expressions of Christian Church. They are right to resist the consumer menu that is found in these places that worship ‘trend’. It is, however, a mistake to conclude that older is necessarily better.

There is one exception to this, the old which is The Tradition, the Scriptures.

  • Is the Bible read, taught faithfully, and believed among the Church? Is the whole counsel of God explained?
  • Is prayer to God the Father a regular part of church life?
  • Is the focus on Jesus Christ and glorifying God, or is the attention given to me?
  • Is the object of spiritual experience faith in Christ or does it depend on some extra biblical human tradition, whether that tradition is brand new or a 1000 years old?
  • Are the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) faithfully administered?
  • Does the Church practice believers’ membership and are the members growing in unity, maturity, and love?
  • Are visitors, Christian and unbeliever alike, welcomed and befriended, and encouraged to know the Gospel?

Looking for an authentic experience of God is a worthwhile pursuit. Indeed, is it not the highest and most rewarding of goals? This is however only successful when we encounter the Christ of Scripture, who is the living, reigning, saving, and judging, God over all things.

At Mentone Baptist, we are currently preaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The central idea in this letter is sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ. Paul is at pains to remind the Church that they have believed the real Gospel, but now they need to remain in this Gospel. Why? Paul notes that there are always other ideas and practices that become attractive and popular, but they are not necessarily of God.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:6-8)

I am not arguing that all older styled churches adhere to such ‘human traditions’ any more than I’m suggesting all contemporary churches are somehow more faithful. The answer is of course, both and neither! However, Paul’s appeal is incredibly important. We ought to assess what is taught and what is practised according to the measure God has given us, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often, when I’ve heard someone say that they want to become Orthodox or Catholic, it’s because they are convinced that those traditions somehow lead to a more full or experientially complete encounter with God. Such think not only insults the people of God who constitute the local church that you’re leaving, but it is also an assault on Christ who is the head of the church. Again, I’m not arguing against all tradition here, but I am repudiating the idea that older means closer proximity to God and to being a real church.

The principles of church that I’ve listed above will find free expression in various cultures and times, and that is part of the curious success of Christianity. This faith can be known and experienced across time and places. There is no single style of church, both the cathedral and the home church can be equal and real expressions of the body of Christ. The megachurch and the small community church can likewise be equal representations of Christ’s church.

My encouragement to churches is, be biblical and keep things simple. We can learn from history without replicating it in the present. We can discard old fashions and do meaningful church while avoiding the unhealthy proclivity toward individual consumerism. One of the wonderful things about Christianity is its cultural adaptability. The one Gospel can be faithfully transmitted across cultures and time. While the Bible is clear about what constitutes a church and while the Bible prescribes which elements are necessary for church, the in-practice reality of these things is not dependent upon a single expression.

I don’t want my church looking like either Hillsong or the Catholic Cathedral. We are not required to reject the past in order to reach the future, and neither am I bound to take on and use every latest whim that captures our culture’s attention. If the church is constantly reaching into God’s word and letting the rule Christ govern us, we will continue in being faithful, knowing the fulness of God, and communicating the Gospel in ways that are understandable and attractive to the community around.

“For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily  in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by Him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. (Colossians 2:9-10)