What’s Our Part In Church?

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Over the years, I’ve often met Christians with the petrol station view of church; where they see going to church as just about getting a spiritual top-up for themselves, a bit like where you take your car to the petrol station to fill up. And there are two things wrong with that view. One is that it sees the church just as something individual. There’s no sense that it’s corporate – that I should be relating to anybody else at the spiritual petrol station. I just drive in, fill up, and head off. The other thing wrong is that it sees church just as something where I receive. Others actively minister; I just passively soak it all up. And with Covid going on, it’s easy to fall into the ‘petrol station’ view of church, because for many of us watching right now (even in the building) it’s a pretty individual experience; and for all of us it feels pretty passive. Which is why, through this next bit of our Ephesians series, we need to ditch the ‘petrol station’ view, and replace it with the picture of the ‘body’, and that will help us each see What’s our part in church? So let’s pray:

We come to you as it becomes harder again to meet as church.
And we ask that, from Ephesians, you would help each of us see what is our part in church right now.
In Jesus’ name. Amen

So we’re looking at Ephesians 4, where Paul says: see your church as a body. which means that Christians who make up a church are profoundly related – like the parts in a body. So here is a rubber man which one of my children gave me, and imagine it stands for JPC all met together, say this time a year ago. And one point of the body picture is that when we’re not meeting, when we’re spread out, the body doesn’t come apart. So if this leg is those of you out there in Tyne valley right now, the leg’s still attached. And if this arm is those of you out at the coast right now (Whitley Bay and so on), the arm is still attached, because the body of Christ is able to stretch so that wherever we are, we remain profoundly related. Which is why, as we saw last week, we need to work at our relationships in Jesus. Let me remind you of that from Ephesians 4.1-3:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you [JPC] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, [that’s the calling we heard in the gospel to trust in Jesus and become part of his body, under his headship:] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Because there is plenty that could divide us and one thing dividing Christians in this country right now is the COVID situation, they’re divided both in their reactions to Government regulations, and in their reactions to how their church leaders are responding. So I know some of you think that we should have got back to physical meeting much earlier; while others wonder whether we should be doing it at all. And it’s not easy to communicate all the fast-changing reasons for the decisions we’re making, or to know why different churches are playing differently. Which means, Ephesians 4.2-3, we do need to be:

…bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

So in Ephesians 4.1-6, Paul uses the body picture to say: we need to work at our relationships in Jesus. Then in Ephesians 4.7-16, he’s going to use the body picture to say: each of us needs to be a body-builder. He says: if you’re one of the believers who make up JPC, you have a part to play in building up this church week by week.

So I’ve got three questions to ask this passage. And question 1 is this:

1. Who are the body-builders? (Ephesians 4.7-12)

Look at Ephesians 4.7:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift.

So Paul is going to saying here: the body-builders are each one of us. The Lord Jesus has given each one of us a part to play in the building up our church. So Ephesians 4.7-10 again:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says,
“When he [that’s the Lord Jesus] ascended on high [in other words, rose from the dead and returned to heaven] he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? [I think that’s talking about him becoming a man ‘down here’ so to speak.] He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The picture is that God’s Son became a man, in the person of Jesus to die for our forgiveness, to rise again and return to heaven. And between then and now he’s given gifts in the form of people, to build up his church both numerically, and in maturity. So look at Ephesians 4.11-12 to see who he’s given as his body-builders:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

So first up, he gave the apostles. They’re the people Jesus chose to be ‘official’ eye-witnesses of what he said and did – and especially, they had to have seen him risen from the dead. And that’s how Paul qualified, because he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And after Jesus died, rose and returned to heaven, God led the apostles to understand fully who Jesus was and what he’d come to do, and to pass that on for all time in the form of the New Testament.

Then next up, he gave the prophets. They appear alongside the apostles in two other bits of Ephesians, where it’s clear that they’re not the Old Testament prophets. They were part of the early church, they maybe had some kind of role under the apostles; but for all the ink that has been spilt on them to be honest, they remain a bit of a mystery. The important thing is that through the apostles we have the New Testament, and so we have God’s finished; we have Old and New Testament in the Bible. And that tells us everything we need to come into relationship with God through Jesus in the first place, and then to continue in relationship with him this side of heaven. So the apostles and early church prophets had a one-off, unrepeatable part to play in the building up the church. But Paul then mentions some groups of people who still have a part to play today and always have.

So next come the evangelists. They’re Christians who are especially gifted
at communicating the gospel with those who are not yet Christians, and in leading and equipping the rest of us in our evangelism. So at a national level, think of Rico Tice of Christianity Explored. And at a local level, think of Jonathan Redfearn – who I think is one of the Lord’s evangelistic gifts to us.

And then next are the shepherds and teachers. Some Bibles translate ‘pastor’ instead of ‘shepherd’. Either way, it’s a picture of caring for a flock.
Which includes one-to-one care. But it’s actually whole flock care – which involves planning, leading, congregational Bible teaching, protecting the church from threats, and much much more (which is the role of an ordained minister). Some then think that the teachers are those with more of a Bible teaching role, less of a leadership role…may be. But Bible teaching and leadership are always linked, because Jesus is the ultimate leader of his church, and he leads it first and foremost through the teaching of his Word.

So in Ephesians 4.11, you have the body-builders who lead and teach. But in Ephesians 4.12, there’s one more group of body-builders (and by far the biggest), because those who lead and teach do so, Ephesians 4.12:

...to equip the saints [which is the Bible’s word for all Christians] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ

So that’s saying: the risen Jesus hasn’t just given JPC the Bible and the likes of Rico Tice on DVD, and the staff in person. He’s given each one of you to minister to others and build them up, and the role of people like me is to equip you for that, because the vast majority of the ministers of JPC are not to be found on the church staff page of the website; they’re all of you.

And if you’re one of the saints – one of the believers who makes up JPC – then you are as much a gift from Jesus to the rest of the church as anybody else. And there are things you can give and do, there are people you can understand and encourage, experience and wisdom you can share, Bible knowledge that you can get across in just the right way, that no-one else can. So who are the body-builders? All of us. Question 2:

2. What kind of body are we aiming for? (Ephesians 4.13-14)

After all, if you start going to a gym, you probably have some kind of aim – whether it’s the modest one of coming out looking a little bit less pear-shaped, or the more ambitious one of a well-toned six-pack. So what kind of body is the risen Lord Jesus aiming for? Let’s read again from Ephesians 4.11-13:

And he [the risen Lord Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God

So one thing we’re aiming for is: mature faith together – Ephesians 4.13, that:

we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God

In other words, aim to get to the same level of mature faith and knowing Jesus. Now that’s always going to be an unreached aim, because a healthy church will always have people all the way along the line from just looking into Christianity, through to just come to faith in Jesus, to been a believer for donkey’s years. So there will always be people ahead of us in Christian maturity, but also those that we’re ahead of – and the Lord Jesus wants us to be helping them to catch up, so to speak – helping them to grow, as doubtless others have helped us to grow. So can I ask: is there at least one person that you are helping to grow in their faith – or you could help?

Some of us are doing that as small groups leaders or youth or children’s leaders. But you don’t need any kind of official role. You could just invite someone to pray with you weekly or fortnightly, or to read a Christian book with you, or to read the Bible one-to-one with you, or to join the God’s Big Picture course with you. And if you like the idea but are unsure about the how, then please ask. Remember people like me are here to equip you in ministry. So we’re aiming for mature faith together. But also for mature character together.

Ephesians 4.13 again: the Lord wants us:

all [to] attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…

So remember that picture of JPC as the body of my rubber man. And imagine each one of the hundreds of us kind of packed into that one man. And so when Paul talks about ‘mature manhood’, he’s not talking individually – about you and me growing individually becoming more mature and Christlike – he’s talking corporately; about JPC growing in corporate maturity and Christlikeness. So for example, I can’t think of a more challenging time for new students to be arriving at uni and looking for a church, or for our old JPC students to be returning. And regulations allowing, I think the opportunity for students to be linked with families and with older, single brothers and sisters in JPC could be more important for than ever this year.

And to see that happening – to see large numbers of one part of the body of Jesus Christ really looking after another part of Christ, with all the time and effort and hospitality that takes, that’s an example of the kind of corporate maturity that Paul is talking about here. So we’re aiming for mature faith together and mature character together – Ephesians 4.14:

...so that we may no longer be children [spiritually immature], tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

So the waves and winds are pictures of false teaching which will unsettle Christians who aren’t yet that mature. And that’s why a good Bible teaching ministry will warn people about false teaching and false views. It won’t just be all positive; it will say the negatives: like what’s false about what the world is saying out there when measured against the Bible; and like what’s false about what’s being said in other parts of the church when measured against the Bible. Whereas a church and a teaching ministry that’s all positive and all-affirming is not a church where people are going to grow to maturity.

So who are the body-builders? All of us. What kind of body are we aiming for? Mature faith and character together. Third and final question:

3. How does the body get built? (Ephesians 4.15-16)

Well, look on to Ephesians 4.15-16:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

So how does the body get built? Ephesians 4.16:

…when each part is working properly

That’s you and me. What does each part need to do? Back to Ephesians 4.15:

speaking the truth in love…

Elsewhere in Ephesians, ‘the truth’ means the truth of the gospel or of the whole Bible. So I take it that ‘speaking the truth’ here means speaking Bible truth, and that’s why the Bible is central to everything we do – from Sunday services, through youth and children’s ministry (where we don’t just believe in entertainment and occupying kids’ time), to midweek small groups. And thinking of small groups, I know that doing them on zoom means the Bible time may need to be lighter. But it must not be lost, because I want to say, if you’re a small group leader, the greatest blessing you can give your small group is not your friendship or hospitality or brilliant zoom quizzes, or even your prayers – it’s the Bible. Because that’s how they’ll meet with God, not just with you and one another.

But of cause, preachers and small groups aren’t the be all and end all of that ministry of speaking Bible truth to one another. And from chatting over the sermon in your ‘bubble’ to replying to a text with someone’s news with a Bible verse, there are all sorts of ways that we need to be doing it. So Ephesians 4.15 again, we are to be:

…speaking the truth in love

That is, in a context of Christ-like commitment to one another. So if you’re a small group leader, the greatest blessing you can give your group is the Bible. But that’s most powerful when we back it up with 'love' (and it’s most undermined when we don’t). And as Rico Tice says, in busy lives love is spelt T-I-M-E. And as regulations restrict us more socially, can I remind us to love our single brothers and sisters especially well, and be especially mindful of their needs and their possible isolation.

So we’ve really come full circle – from Ephesians 4.7, which says each one of us has a part to play in building up the church to Ephesians 4.16, which says each part needs to be working properly. So can I encourage you to ask yourself this week and every week, ‘How can I minister to the particular brothers and sisters God has put around me? How can I build them up?’

The answer may be by getting back to joining the Zoom after the online service – to put Zoom fellowship above Zoom fatigue. Or the answer may be, if you can, to come to the church building to watch the online service with others in person. I know we’re very limited in what we can do there at the moment, but someone said to me last week, ‘Despite all that, I’d forgotten the sheer encouragement of being with other Christians.’ So just by being there, if you can, you’re reminding other believers that they’re not in the Christian life on their own. You can encourage your bubble to come along. At times when you can’t sing along to the music, you can be looking around and praying for others there. Once you’re outside afterwards, you could quickly agree to phonecall someone once you’re both home, to have the chat you couldn’t have over coffee at the back of church. Or the answer may be completely different for you.

But the questions is this - ‘How can I minister to the particular brothers and sisters that God has put around me? How can I build them up?’ That’s what you ask when you’ve ditched the ‘petrol station’ view of church, and realised that church is a body in which you have a part that nobody else can play. Let’s pray:

Thanks so much that you’ve called us not just to live for Jesus on our own, individually, but together with others as part of His body. Thank you for the body of our church and for the many brothers and sisters we have the privellage of relating to and learning from, who’ve helped us grow so much in faith and character. Please make us especially altert right now to those we each need to be ministering to (whether christian or not yet christian) and please fill us with your Spirit of love, power and self-control to do so.
In Jesus name, Amen.

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