Sunday, 19 April 2009

Acts of Service

Acts of service are ways of blessings others that often open the door for God to move in unusual ways. The chief way this was expressed in the Bible was through hospitality. Hospitality literally means a love of strangers. God has a special place in His heart for the stranger, Ex22.21, You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Notice how their call to act in the future is rooted in their experience in the past. They were strangers in Egypt where they were oppressed and taken advantage of. God says in effect, "Don’t be like that. Show kindness, consideration and care for them."

In 2Kings 4.8-17 we have the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman. She is a woman of substance – a notable woman who lived with her husband. One day she persuaded Elisha to call by and eat with them. This developed in to a regular part of Elisha’s routine. Every time he was in the neighbourhood he called by. In process of time she could see that he was a man of God and suggested to her husband that they build an extension – a place for Elisha. They put in a bed, a table and chair and a lampstand; everything he would need to be comfortable.

There is no agenda here. The woman is simply responding from her heart to Elisha. She wants to serve and bless him. It was a simple act of service and she didn’t expect anything in return. But Elisha wants to bless her. He tells his servant to speak to her, Look; you have been concerned for us with all this care. What can I do for you? He even makes s a few suggestions. He has access to the ear of the King and even the commander of the army. But she is not impressed. She needs nothing! And then Gahazi mentions that she is childless and her husband is old – implying that there is no-one to carry on with the inheritance.

Elisha is very bold: About this time next year you shall embrace a son. She is astonished. It is not an area in her life she wants to be toyed with. And sure enough the prophecy comes to pass. There is a lot more to this story if we read the whole chapter but what impresses me is how her act of service made room for God’s power to break into her life. The deepest longing of her heart; something she had given up on and could no longer even speak about was given to her. She was incredulous and yet God came through.

This pattern is often seen in scripture. Rahab received the spies. She extended care and hospitality to them and Heb 11.31 says this was an act of faith. As a result she delivered not only herself, but her whole family. They did not perish along with the others in Jericho. A simple act of service led to releasing the saving power of God. And this is my point. Who knows what simple acts can lead to? In themselves they may appear insignificant. But they become part of a chain of events that make room for God to move.

Consider Abraham in Gen 18. The Lord appears to him with two angels. Abraham compels them to stay and prepares food. Amongst other things calf is killed and prepared. This is no quick McDonalds drive through. It would have taken hours. And in that simple act of service the Lord reveals two amazing things to Abraham. The first was that Sarah would give birth the following year. This was life changing for them and an answer to a long awaited promise. But then the Lord begins to speak to Abraham about the judgement that is coming to Sodom – the place where Lot lives. It all takes place because Abraham took the time to serve his visitors with a meal. He extended hospitality and destinies were changed!

In Matt 25.31-46 we have Jesus speaking about the judgement of the Nations. It is the famous story of separating the sheep from the goats. One group enter into life while the others go to hell, prepared for the devil and his angels. Notice the criteria Jesus applies at this judgement: I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. Six major areas of need are highlighted. Notice how in vs37-38 the righteous are totally unselfconscious of when this happened and question Jesus as to when all this happened? His answer is telling: Inasmuch as you did it to the least of one of My brethren, you did it to Me.

This is powerful. Sometimes Jesus doesn’t look attractive! Here’s what I mean. Sometimes we encounter believers with deep needs. They are not the picture of victorious Christian living. They are not ‘on top’ as they should be. They may well be victims like Paul to abuse for sharing the gospel. As a result they suffer. But the Lord wants us to know that to minister to them is to minister to Him. This was the shocking revelation that Paul had to face on the Damascus road. He wasn’t just persecuting believers he was persecuting Jesus. It was a truth that later in life made him declare himself the chief of sinners – 1Tim 1.15. He could conceive of nothing worse than tormenting believers for their faith in Jesus.

So our acts of service do not just open the way for God’s purpose, God’s power and God’s blessing now, they are part of the criteria used in the final judgement – a judgment that for believers leads to more blessing – inheriting the Kingdom, Matt25.34. Paul encourages the Corinthian church to, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord, 1Cor 15.58. Acts of service do not go unnoticed by Him. He sees. He knows. And He rewards.

Matt 10.40-42 bears this out. By simply receiving those whom God sends, we receive their reward. Not only that, Jesus focuses on the most simple act of service that anyone could perform – giving a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple. This is not rocket science. It is the most basic act of service we can perform – refreshing someone with a drink of water. I find this amazingly simple. To do so is to guarantee we will get a reward. Not only that, we get the reward of the one we receive. We may not have a prophetic ministry but we get the reward of the prophet – if receive and provide hospitality to him. This is what is implied in the word receive. It means their needs become our concern. This is what happened to the Shunammite woman and her life was changed – forever.

Sometimes we can think that the real areas of ministry in the church are what happens on stage; the worship team, the preacher, those who lead, the visiting evangelist who gets the response you’ve prayed for years to get. But in a large church these represent only a few people. Ministry can be taking place all the time through simple acts of service – setting out chairs, welcoming people on the door, preparing food, counselling, giving lifts to church, praying for the sick, giving. I could go on. Jesus was just as comfortable feeding the multitudes (John 6.5-12) and healing the blind (John 9.1-7) as he was washing feet (John 13.1-17) or making breakfast for the disciples (John 21.9-10). He is Jesus. Both are important to Him.

Consider Acts 9.36-43. It’s the story of Dorcas who was raised from the dead by Peter. The text says, this woman was full of good works and charitable deeds. When Peter arrived they showed him all the garments and tunics she made. This was a highly productive and industrious woman. Many benefitted from her skills. And now she was gone! Peter knelt down and prayed next to the body. If I were Peter then I would have one simple question for the Lord, Is it her time or has the enemy taken her early as he did with Lazarus? He clearly got the conviction this was not her time. And so he speaks two words and up she gets.

Again I want you to see how her simple acts of service opened the door for the miraculous to come into her life. God’s power broke in. Everyone valued what she did and had no peace in letting her go at that time. The outcome was amazing: it became known throughout all Joppa and many believed on the Lord. Not only was Dorcas restored and the church blessed but many believed. Her testimony had a huge impact on the community. Imagine the pride you would feel wearing a garment made by her – someone who was raised from the dead. She would have been the Armani of the first century; only her garments were for anyone who had need and not just the social elite.

Finally think about the appointment of the seven in Acts 6.1-7. Two of them went on to have outstanding ministries; Philip the evangelist who brought revival to Samaria and Stephen a brilliant apologist who was the first martyr in the church. They both began by being appointed to serve tables and take care of the distribution of food and funds for the widows in the church. They did this humbly, faithfully and saw it as a spiritual activity. This was not the run up to real ministry in their minds – it was ministry. And it wasn’t long before these acts of service opened doors for more dramatic interventions from heaven. And all because they served.

I want to encourage you to place value on what you do for the Lord and the church. We face the challenge of refurbishing a building so that we can have an administrative and ministry centre to touch this community. I’m sure it will be a place where miracles happen; a place where lives are changed and people saved and restored; but none of this will happen if we don’t continue to give ourselves to simple acts of service; practical expressions of love that open the door for God to move and show His greatness. I never cease to be filled with gratitude for all the saints – past and present – who by their faithful service changed whole communities. This is the possibility that lies ahead of us. Let’s gab it with both hands and see what God does!

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Created for Good Works

I have spoken about some of the ways God uses us to bring people to faith. We have considered the power of a personal testimony – telling our stories and the way God has worked with us. We’ve looked at the power of prophetic words to open hearts to the truth of the gospel. We have also considered the power of preaching and teaching to challenge and inform people in their journey to Jesus. All of these means of communicating the gospel are by the spoken word.

I now wish to speak about three primary ways that people come to faith that seldom involve speaking. They are; Acts of Power, Acts of Mercy and Acts of Service. They are powerful because they are rooted in action and for many it is still true that ‘actions speak louder than words’. When personal testimony, prophecy or preaching and teaching are combined with one of these, it has a great impact.

Acts of Power, Acts of Mercy and Acts of Service are all means of serving people that come under the general category of ‘Good works’. Jesus challenges those who wanted to stone Him, “Many good works I have shown you from my Father. For which of these works do you stone Me?” John 10.33. Everything Jesus did was a good work. He clearly saw all of His disciples as having a part in these good works, “Most assuredly I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” John 14.12. The only qualification laid down is to be a believer – He who believes in Me.... That is a totally universal and inclusive statement for all believers at all times in all situations.

Later in Acts we read Peter’s response to the religious leaders who questioned them about the healing of the crippled man at the Temple Gate, “If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all and to all the people of Israel , that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man now stands here before you whole.” Notice how like Jesus, he too saw this act of power as a good deed or part of the good works the church is called too.

Eph 2.8-9 is known by many believers: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift if God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” This clear statement about works having no part in being saved has made many evangelicals nervous when it comes to encouraging believers to do good works. But the very next scripture goes on to say; “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

Paul is clear. We are not saved by works but we are saved for works. Not only that; these works were not an after-thought by God. Rather they were ‘prepared beforehand’. Life for the believer is not meant to be passive. We are the forerunners of the New Creation. As such God wants to begin effecting change now – through us; by good works. The word Paul uses for ‘workmanship’ is the Greek word poiema from which our English word poem is derived. A Shakespearean sonnet is a carefully crafted poem that has 14 lines and often focuses on the theme of love. The church is something like this to God. It is carefully crafted. It expresses something of His beauty. When it walks in its destiny it walks in the works God has prepared.

In Matt 5.16 Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” Our good works are different to those of well meaning people. They are something God has created for us to walk in and as such they draw attention to Him. Men don’t raise us they praise God for what we do in His name!

I want to focus on five words that can help us be more effective as a church involved in our community. These words are all used in the book of Titus. Titus is one of Paul’s last letters. It is to a young companion with whom he had planted churches throughout the island of Crete. Paul intentionally left Titus on Crete to establish local leaders in the churches. He mentions the issue of good works several times and the verbs he connects with the theme of good works is instructive.

The first word is Pattern, Titus 2.7. Titus was to be a pattern to the church in good works. He was to model something they could in turn emulate. In church life someone has to take the initiative. This usually falls to the leaders. Whilst it is true that we are all priests it is not true that we are all equal. Equal in value yes, but not equal in gifting and certainly not equal in maturity. Crete needed mature leaders who could model good works to younger believers. Titus himself had to take the lead in being a pattern to others.

Why is this so crucial? The answer is simple; people do what we do, not what we say. They look to see if there is resonance between our words and our actions. Do they fit? Being a model of good works to others is intentional. Paul lived with all kinds of restraints in his life for the sake of the gospel and the church, 1Cor 9.19-23, 27. He was modelling something. He wanted others to copy him! 1Cor 11.1. There was no pseudo spirituality with Paul; ‘Don’t follow me follow Jesus’, as I often heard as a teenager in church. It sounds spiritual but is not that helpful. Yes we follow Jesus, that’s a given. But more importantly we follow those who inspire us to follow Jesus. We copy their way of doing things and in copying them we find our own authentic voice and way of being. This is how children grow and learn.

The second word is Zealous, Titus 2.14. We are purified as a special people, Paul says, in order to be zealous for good works. One definition of zealous is; to be warmly engaged in an activity. Jesus criticism of the church at Ephesus was that they had become luke warm. They were neither cold nor hot and it made Jesus want to puke! To be zealous is to be passionate about a thing. Everything about Jesus demonstrated this. In John 2.13-22 we have the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. His action reminded His disciples of a scripture, “Zeal for Your house has eaten Me up”, quoting Psalm 69.9. What a phrase. To be consumed with zeal for God’s house – that was Jesus.

Zeal is like the engine that drives the train. It brings motivation and energy to a task. It makes value judgments about what is and is not important in life. It makes the hard decisions easy because it helps to frame them in the light of God’s Kingdom. We are not just saved from something we are saved for something – good works. It’s not about trying to impress God; it’s about trying to reach and serve men. More on that later.

The third word is Ready, Titus 3.1. This was a major theme in Jesus teaching. The parable of the Ten Virgins is all about being ready. Readiness like zeal is an attitude of heart. When Olympic runners know the date of the next Olympic events they begin to prepare. Everything in their life is geared for that event. That’s how they become winners. They don’t put off training – they get on with it so that they know they will be ready. This is the aim of discipleship; getting the saints ready for every good work, 2Tim 2.20-21. It often means substituting one set of habits that are often unhelpful or destructive, for another set that build and shape us. What could you do today that may prepare you better for the good works God has ordained for you and your church?

Let’s get practical for a minute. Some people, for example, have a passion to see others healed. How can they best be ready to be used by God in that sphere? Here are my suggestions:

1. Read books written by practitioners that deal with the subject of healing; people who have a track record for being used by God in this area.

2. Go to a week-long seminar or training event where healing is not just taught but modelled. Do this once or twice a year.

3. Continue to develop a Biblical understanding of healing by constantly going back to the text to test your practice.

4. Meet with others who have a similar passion and pray for the sick in teams.

5. Stay accountable to leaders who are empowering you for this ministry.

6. Earnestly desire the gifts of power listed by Paul in 1Cor 12 to be manifested in you.

7. Practice moving in words of knowledge – they teach us to listen to the Holy Spirit.

The fourth word is Maintain, Titus 3.8. Paul says that the church must learn to maintain good works. I have a Ford Focus. Its’ been a totally reliable car, so far! The other day I took it in for its 6000 mile service. It needed two new tyres, new windscreen wipers, a new wheel bearing and blower switch along with the all the other parts for such a service. This maintenance cost me something – more than I had anticipated. But given the age of the car, it really wasn’t that unexpected.

When we first come to faith we often approach serving with genuine zeal and enthusiasm. We are keen to get involved. We put heart and soul into everything. But as time goes on we hit a few disappointments – some in others, some in ourselves. If we are not careful we can lose our zeal and love for serving. It all becomes rather routine and samey. Like Martha we think we are the only ones who really care and why don’t others pull their weight more?

All this goes to highlight the need to maintain our souls in order that we can maintain our good works. Paul writes about this in Gal 6.9-10; “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore as we have opportunity let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

Notice that Paul says we can grow weary while doing good. It is seldom that believers grow weary of doing good but they often grow weary while doing good. There is a difference. Paul reminds us of the farmer who must live with the gap. It exists between the time the seed is planted and the harvest comes ready for reaping. The farmer is still committed to caring for the soil because he knows that something is happening below ground. We too need to have a similar mind set in order to maintain good works. In some situations the pay off will come much later than we would like; but it will come.

Finally Paul says, “Let our people learn to maintain good works to meet urgent needs....” Titus 3.14. The key word here is Learn. Maintaining good works is a learning process. And the best way to learn is to do. The more I learn the more I realise how much there is to learn and how little I really know. Learning is good. The challenge is whether or not we are willing to revisit something we think we know. If we stop learning we usually end up on a rut. Moving into good works is not always easy. We sometimes get taken out of our comfort zones into areas we can feel inadequate. But these can be great times of growing in trust. Through this process we can learn to operate at new levels of faith.

But why is Paul so committed to seeing the church involved in good works? He gives us three simple reasons:

Titus 2.10 – Good works adorn the doctrine of God. Good works are like the working clothes of good theology. They make theology look attractive.
Titus 3.8 – Good works are ‘profitable for men’. Others become the main beneficiaries of our works. They profit by our service and that’s as it should be.
Titus 3.14 – Good works produce fruit to our account. God is our ultimate reward. He sees every act of service and treasure is laid up for us, by Him, in Heaven.

My prayer for us is that having understood the why behind good works we will be inspried by these five simple words and let them build a lifestyle of service in us as a church that brings people closer to Jesus.