Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Make Every Effort Part 5

Make every effort to guard the unity that the Spirit gives, with your lives bound together in peace. Eph 4.3 Translated by Tom Wright.

Eph 4.1-16 is a key passage of scripture. Once again the phrase ‘Make every effort’ is used. Notice that we are not asked to produce unity, only to guard it! It is not of human origin. It is based on the work of Jesus. His death on the cross has removed all barriers to God and to each other.

In Paul’s context the biggest social and religious barriers existed between Jews and non-Jews, (often called Gentiles). They simply didn’t mix. But now Paul declares that through Messiah Jesus the partition that divides them is broken down. Now they are both united in Him. Together they make up the one new man, Eph 2.14-18.

From Ephesians we can say a number of things about this unity.

1. It is organic not organizational. It may develop organizational expression over time, but in essence it’s organic in nature. In other words it is based on a shared life source. Trees have structure but its life is organic. A tree can remain standing even after it is dead. But its fruitfulness is dependent on maintaining life.

2. It is communal not common. The life that we share is ‘in the Spirit’ and we all share it in Christ. To use Paul’s language again from 1 Cor 12.13 NIV For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Our sense of community is created by this shared life in the Spirit.

3. It is a unity based on fulfilled righteousness that is now sealed in God’s peace. Jesus didn’t conquer armies to secure this unity. He was no Alexander. He died on a cross to fulfill the penalty of the law securing righteousness as a gift for all those who believe. Now we have peace with God and each other. So we can’t keep this unity through fighting for it! We don't fight flesh and blood! We guard against the enemy destroying it through believers that become fleshly in their attitudes and actions. More on that later.

If we unpack these sixteen verses from Ephesians 4 we can see seven things that help us to preserve the unity of the Spirit. They are seven things we must make an effort towards. Here they are as I see it:

1. Live up to your calling – Eph 4.1 This is so needed today in the body of Christ. Our calling is characterized by four things; it’s a high calling – Phil 3.14; it’s a heavenly calling – Heb 3.1;It's a holy calling - 2Tim 1.9 and it’s a humble calling – 1Cor 1.26.

Prince William in the UK has been educated differently to most people because he is 2nd in line for the throne. It is a high calling. Things that ordinary people do he can’t do. His calling demands lively differently. And he accepts it. A high call means high privilege and high responsibility.

A heavenly calling shows us the source of our call. It is from above. John the Baptist said that a man can receive nothing unless it is from heaven. This is the source of all true authority and anointing. A church can give you a salary, a car, a manse and insurance but only God can give you a calling that empowers you to fulfill His will.

Christians who get drunk are not living up to their holy calling. Something is missing. One way of making a real effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is not to grieve the Spirit by living as though we don’t know Jesus. This issue of personal holiness is important. Holy means separated, set apart for God’s use. If we learn to live with that attitude it is easier to say no to stuff that makes you an instrument in the hand of the enemy.

Finally we have a humble calling. None of us get into the Kingdom through self effort. We all have to become like little children and receive God's grace and forgiveness. Boasting is excluded.

2. Work on attitudes and actions – Eph 4.2. Paul includes four; humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance. Each one of these is both an attitude and an action.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less! Jesus demonstrated this by washing feet. He didn’t see Himself above this task. That was His attitude. He washed the feet of the disciples, that was the action that followed. We need both. I know those who work hard on having a good attitude but are light on actions that follow through. Others are good at following through but do so with gritted teeth. Attitude is somewhat lacking.

Gentleness. I love this word. None of us like to be handled roughly either physically or emotionally. Recently I had keyhole surgery to unlock my ‘frozen shoulder’. For the first time in a year I can raise my left arm above my head. Wonderful! But I am enduring five weeks of physiotherapy where my muscles are being stretched in order to regain full movement. It’s painful at times. But the folk who work with me know what they are doing. Above all they are gentle. They understand that after invasive surgery like this I don’t need an aggressive body building maneuvers. Slow and gentle does it. We need to handle people in the same way. Too many are broken and abused. Paul tells us in Gal 6.1 that those who need restoration should be cared for by those who are spiritual and have a spirit of gentleness. Attitude and action again working together.

Patience is the ability to handle pressure without letting your blood boil. There will always be situation in life where people press your buttons. They get to you. They wind you up. The temptation is to ‘let them have it!’ But blasting people in this way seldom helps. You may feel justified, you may feel better for getting that off your chest but it does nothing to preserve the unity of the Spirit. Those who work with anger management talk about AT - Anger Threshold. Some people have a LAT – low anger threshold. They have to work at getting a HAT – high anger threshold. In other words they keep cool for longer. For the believer this is not just about keeping a lid on things then punching a cushion when you get home – however helpful that might be! It’s about an inner transformation through the work of the Spirit. Paul tells us we need to show patience to ‘all men’.

Finally we have forbearance. This is similar to patience but is more nuanced. It is the ability to let things that are legitimately irritating to us slide. To use the JB Philips translation; ‘Make a generous allowance for one another’. I like that. Most parents understand this. If you over correct a child they loose heart. The motivation to want to do better next time goes. I had to learn how to major on the majors and let the other stuff go. Some parents major on the minors and the majors and all the chords in between. It doesn’t really work as a long-term strategy for ringing about change. It doesn’t make for peace, only conformity. It doesn’t preserve the unity of the Spirit.

3. Eph 4.4-6 NIV There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. This verse had a beautiful chiasm structure that places Jesus at the centre of everything. There may be many churches that express the Kingdom of God locally but only one body. This should have a profound impact on the way we relate to other believers from other fellowships. It is not a competition. It’s collaboration. Recognising this truth gives us the motivation to make more effort with other believers who see things differently from us. Jesus died for them too. He loves them as well as us. Let’s not erect barriers He died to pull down!

4. Get to know your grace gift – Eph 4. 7 NIV But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. Each one of us has a grace gift. It is much easier to make an effort to keep the unity of the Spirit if I know who you are and what you’re called to do. Too often I have seen grace gifts defined purely in terms of Eph 4.11 and the zenith is reached when you are full time. But the grace gift of pastoral care can operate in many vocational settings. I know a businessman who is great at discipling other businessmen. His pastoral gift works in the market place looking after other businessmen. Trying to be what we are not doesn’t preserve unity, it destroys it. I read a report recently of a large church that imploded after five years. It was a church with thousands of members. 60% left over a very short period of time. An analysis was made by a Christian Consultant as to why. He did a personality profile test of the leadership and then of the members. He discovered that the members were trying to be like the leaders in personality but it was contrary to their type. They were trying to be what they were not! And after a few years of trying they couldn’t sustain the pressure. Some people are more intuitive while others are ore analytical. Some are introvert while others are more extroverts. Our grace gift will work through our different personality types.

5. Learn to receive the grace gift of others, especially those that equip you for service – Eph 4.11-13. Jesus put it like this; If you receive a prophet in the name of a prophet you receive the prophet’s reward; Matt 10.41 Receiving from others helps to preserve unity. We receive as well as give. We minister and are ministered to. That’s how it works. The ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher are there to, "give God's people the equipment they need for their work of service", Tom Wright's translation. Only by receiving them within the sphere of the gift they operate in do we benefit from their ministry.

6. Aim for maturity – Eph 4.13-16. Some Christians need to grow up! The basic problem of the Corinthian church was immaturity. They acted as babes in Christ. Babies are cute and adorable but we rightly expect them to grow and mature. A child that isn’t able to talk and be potty trained by five is a worry. Here are three things Paul highlights in the text that he looks for in a maturing Christian.

Discernment. The ability to spot a wind of teaching and navigate through it so that you stay on course instead of jumping from one Christian fad to the next.

Truthing it in our relationships. I am trying to convey the force of the Greek here as Paul wrote it. Most times it is translated ‘speaking the truth’, but ‘truthing it’ is better. Again the force is attitude and action. Being truthful, not just with our words but with our life.

Being connected. Joints are the points of connection in the body. It is where two members meet and interact. Mature believers understand the importance of connection. They don’t need to be told to go to church or get into a connect group. They understand that this was how the early church organised itself in order to do life together. Who are you connected to? Who speaks into your life? Who do you go to for advice and counsel? And do those people demonstrate that they too are following Jesus?

7. Finally Eph 4.16 focuses on every part doing its share of the work. This causes growth of the body in love, ‘as each part does its work’. Taking personal responsibility for your life is crucial. Nothing significant or lasting will happen until you do. Every one of us has a vital part to play in building up the body. So play your part. Getting connected puts you into a set of relationships that helps you to know where, when and how you can serve. My hand is joined to my wrist. It is not on the end of my ankle! It knows it’s a hand through the connection of relationships it has. It’s the same with us. Our relationships are intended to help us know who we are so we can serve effectively. You can’t serve in isolation. You need the body and the body needs you.

To make an effort in anything requires us to re prioritize our life. The unity of the Spirit is a reality Jesus gave His life for. Ask for grace to apply these seven points of progress to your life so that you become a person who actively guards unity. And then watch what God is able to do with a company of people who live in this way.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Make Every Effort Part 4

But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured more eagerly to see your face with great desire. Therefore we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us, 1Thess 2.17-18

This is another occasion when Paul uses the phrase ‘Make every effort’. From the account in Acts we learn that Paul had to flee Thessalonica because of persecution only two weeks after the establishment of the church. But in that short space of time he had taken them into his heart. Now he had to leave.

At the first opportunity he writes to them, expressing both his desire to see them and explained the many failed attempts he had made to get to them. But it still stands that he had ‘made every effort’ to see their face. They were separated in presence but not in heart. That is a wonderful thought. It tells us that relationships that have real value are heart relationships. I believe they display four essential qualities:

1. You are mindful of the other person even when you are not together. You carry them in your heart. It is difficult not to pray for such people. They are present in your thinking. Paul felt snatched away from these saints and longed to be with them.

2. You look forward to the reunion - to when you can be together. Paul desired to be with this church. All of us have experienced this. Those who have been in love know exactly what is being said here. The one you love takes up your thoughts so much so that when you are separated you long to be together. To quote Shakespeare: ”Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

3. You actively seek ways to be together. That’s what Paul was doing. He had made several failed attempts to get to them, but he wanted them to know he hadn’t given up. He wrote to them so that they would be assured of his love, that he was mindful of them and that he would make it there – one day!

4. You openly share the value you place on the relationship. This is a very vulnerable place to be. To declare love for another, whether a friend, a sweetheart or even another family member is never easy. Taking the initiative leaves you open to rejection. We all want reciprocation when we declare love for another – but there are no guarantees.

Paul had no such reservations. He openly declares his love and joy in this group of believers. He would make every effort to see them again. The enemy would not have the last word.

I love the tenacious spirit Paul displays. It shows the priority that he places on relationships, especially with other believers. Even when absent he felt connected. That’s what heart connection does. It transcends time and distance.

I have a friend who is a Doctor of Psychology. Her thesis was written on “The Absent Father”. She explored the impact that this generation has experienced through fathers who were busy building careers and were not at home much. She included missionaries and pastors, who often spend extended periods away from their children. To her surprise the kids of many (though not all) missionaries and pastors fared well, while the kids of most (though not all) businessmen suffered identity issues and problems with self worth.

After careful study she came to this conclusion: A father can be absent but emotionally present and present but emotionally absent. The degree of emotional or heart connection was the crucial factor. Letters and phone calls had value when the father returned home and was emotionally present. Without heart connection the children still felt the distance.

In the church we need to prioritise emotional presence in our relationships. I must confess I have had to learn how to do this over the years. It didn’t come naturally to me. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you felt like they weren’t there? They were in another place. Ask them to repeat your last sentence and they couldn’t. They are already thinking about their next appointment or how to deal with that problem that keeps occupying them. That was me. But for the most part I've changed. I've learned active listening skills that have helped make make genuine connection. To really be present with a person.

Jesus knew how to be emotionally connected to people. He had heart connection. He could weep over Jerusalem for missing their hour of opportunity. He could weep at the grave of Lazarus, even though He knew he would rise from the dead. He could look at a young man who was bound by money and love him. Heart connection. You can’t fake it. People know when it’s there and when it isn’t.

When Jesus called the twelve to follow Him they literally went on a journey. ‘Follow Me’ was the only requirement. But in the process of time the nature of their relationship changed. He took them into His heart. They went from being servants to friends; a friendship characterised by openhearted sharing:

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you, John 15.15 NIV.

He held nothing back. In doing so Jesus teaches us the importance of these kinds of friendships and these kinds of connections – heart connections. We see this later in Paul’s letter to Timothy. This was a man he had done ministry with for at least 15 years. He considered him a son in the faith; a close friend.

Remember Paul’s pastoral letters are his last words to two young pastors before he dies. They are at the end of his ministry. And at the close of this letter to Timothy listen to his heart cry:

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica, 1Tim 4.9.

The phrase ‘Do your best’ is the same Greek word we have been studying translated in other places as, ‘Make very effort’. A co-worker has abandoned Paul; he feels the loneliness; he feels the pain. He wants Timothy. And then in verse 21 we get: "Do your best to get here before winter".

“Come quickly, come before winter”, is the cry of his heart. Twice within a few verses Paul shares his need; not for money but for friendship; for someone who is loyal and understands him. I find this very moving. To paraphrase Paul: “Make every effort to get here soon and definitely before winter”. The unspoken subtext, “I need you here, now”.

Timothy was in Ephesus leading the church; Paul was in Rome awaiting execution by Nero. Paul didn’t want Timothy to miss the opportunity of taking a sea going vessel to Rome before the winter made sea journeys hazardous. He wanted the presence of the man he felt the most heart connection to. And Timothy was a man who would make every effort.

That’s when friendship counts; when you are up against it, when you are abandoned; when you feel alone. When Jesus faced Gethsemane He asked for Peter, James and John to be with Him. Yet Jesus was surprised they couldn't manage to pray for even one hour with Him. Perhaps they needed to make more effort! When David was on the run from King Saul he took strength and comfort from Jonathan. They had heart connection. And Jonathan made the effort to encourage, protect David and speak up for him before his father.

But friendship also counts in times of celebration too. In Matt 22 we have the story of the wedding feast. The guests were invited but they refused to come. They would not make the effort. It said something about the value they placed on the relationship. There was no real heart connection.

The son who left home discovered this in Luke 15. When his money ran out so did his friends. They were fair-weather friends in it for the ride, not the relationship. When he finally came to himself he considered how the servants in his fathers house were treated and suddenly he saw things differently. They were loved and cared for, appreciated.

And on his return he got another shock. He was reinstated as a son because the father would not withhold this heart connection from his own son. Ironically the older brother suffered from the same disconnection, even though he stayed on the farm. He could not enter into the celebration of the return of his younger brother. He too needed to have a change of heart.

The story is called "The Prodigal Son” when it should be called "The Longing Father”, as in longing for genuine heartfelt connection with his two sons. Both of them had failed in different ways to appreciate what their father had to give them. In bad times, in good times we need friends around and we need to make every effort to be with them in those times.

A ten year study of people over seventy years old in Australia found that an active network of friends increase life expectancy by 22%. No friends and you die younger; that’s how important real friendships are to life and health. And like all things in life worth having it requires effort, but if we truly place value on relationships then the effort is not difficult. It is one of ordering our priorities.

Think if Zacchaeus in Luke 19.1-10. He was wealthy and a chief tax collector and short! Everyone knew him. But he was passionate about meeting Jesus and so he did a very undignified thing for a chief, wealthy, tax collector to do. He climbed a tree – just to see Jesus. While others may have been amused by this sight Jesus invited Himself to his house. He took him very seriously and that little man’s life was changed forever. He made every effort. He was prepared to look foolish. Jesus mattered more.

Think of blind Bartimeaus in Mark 10.46. When he knew that Jesus was passing by he would not stop crying out. When people told him to be silent he cried out even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”. By calling Jesus the Son of David he was acknowledging His legitimate claim to the thrown of Israel. Jesus was their King and Messiah and Bartimaeus freely confessed this. He made every effort to get Jesus attention and he succeeded. The result – he received his sight fully restored, and then followed Him.

Think of the Canaanite woman with her demonised daughter in Matt 15.21. The disciples want her to be sent away. Jesus reminds her that He is sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – not the Canaanite gentiles. But she persists, worshipping Him, beseeching Him. And then Jesus is at His most controversial. He tells her it is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs.

She doesn’t get offended. She is on a mission. Nothing will stop her. The well being of her daughter is at stake and only Jesus can help. She is making every effort to touch His heart. And her reply is astonishing, humble and clever. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table”. Genius!

Jesus is impressed. "I have not found faith like this, not even in all Israel". This woman gets it and Jesus commends her faith. For that is what it is. Faith inspires us to make every effort to press in to God; to find heart connection. This is the only time in the NT where a person is delivered from a demon and Jesus is not actually present with the afflicted person. Such was the level of her faith. She made every effort and her faith was rewarded.

Think now of Hebrews 10.24-25.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Meeting together is always an effort. If you have a family it means getting up early enough for everyone to have time to get showered and dressed. I’ve done this with six kids. I know what’s involved. It often means organising what you eat for lunch the day before, even preparing it then sometimes. But if you value the church, if you value fellowship, if you value corporate worship, if you value God’s word then you will make every effort to be there.

I’m saddened by some of the excuses I hear people make as to why they don’t make it to church sometimes; a late night, a busy week, no time for breakfast, difficult children. Come on! That is the stuff of life. It wouldn’t stop us getting to work most days of the week. You find a way to make it happen. Just this past month I know of guys who get up early to watch the Rugby World Cup, but can’t make the effort to be at a prayer meeting on a Sunday evening. They are making every effort to watch the Rugby.

I have no problem with that. That's great. Now let’s make an effort to pray together. Let’s see it as a priority that can make a difference in our town, our country, and our world. What I am talking about is valuing what God values so that what we make an effort to do comes out of a sense of conviction.

In John 21 we have the story of Peter who decides to go fishing. He goes back to his old trade. The chances are that after his vehement denial of Jesus he now saw himself disqualified for ministry. He had disqualified himself. So off he went and because he is a leader a group of them followed him, including John. You see your gift keeps operating in all circumstances! They all made a huge effort to catch fish. They stayed up all night. Experienced fishermen. Yet they caught nothing.

Think of how demoralised they would have felt. This was their trade. Imagine what went through Peter’s head. I’m no good as an apostle and now I’m no good at fishing either. Disaster! And then Jesus shows up and tells them to cast the net on the other side. They are tired. They are hungry. They are demoralised. But they make very effort to obey. It isn’t a huge demand but for where they were at, it took a gargantuan effort to move that net. But when they did, result!

We can make all kinds of effort and put that effort into the right thing but without Jesus, without His guidance and help, we achieve nothing. But to make every effort in response to what Jesus has said changes everything. And when they get to shore Jesus already has breakfast for them. He meets every need. He restores Peter’s dignity as a fisherman; He feeds him as a friend and then restores him as an apostle. Wonderful. Jesus made the effort to be there for Peter because He valued the man and saw beyond his failure.

And John finishes where he began; with a simple phrase that tells us what discipleship is all about, ‘Follow Me’. This is what we must make every effort to do. Follow Him. And as we do we too will find ourselves being there for each other as Paul was for Timothy, as Barnabas was for Paul, as Jesus was for the twelve. John the aged apostle calls it laying down your life for the brethren, 1John 3.16. Now that is worth making an effort for.