Let me start by asking you a question: 'How do you see church?' While you think about your answer, let me introduce you to three 'Mr Men' friends of mine who arrived in Newcastle a year ago.
- Felix the Floater
My first friend is Felix the Floater. Felix arrived in Newcastle last September. When he arrived, he gave himself six weeks to go round and visit various evangelical churches in the city. But after six weeks, he still couldn't quite make his mind up between two of those churches, so he settled into pattern of coming to Church A one week, and Church B the next week – unless, that is, there was a special event in another church which all his Christian friends were going to. That's Felix the Floater.
- Sarah the Spectator
My second friend is Sarah the Spectator. Sarah's a regular at church now, unless perhaps there's a big coursework deadline. She enjoys it! She enjoys the peaceful music, the intellectual stimulation of the sermon, the religious experience – and time away from her studies! But really she treats church like a theatre. She sits still for an hour. When the service finishes, she then leaves quickly without talking to the people sat next to her – and rushes out the door at a gallop to avoid being collared by the vicar! (In brackets, if you really do need to leave promptly this evening, don't feel guilty!). She is not really interested in building relationships with people at church. Any mid-week church meetings a 'no-no' for Sarah. That's Sarah the Spectator.
- Charlie the Critic
My third friend is Charlie the Critic. Charlie has good Bible knowledge. He's there at Focus. But he has such high standards! He seems to be forever complaining about church life: the sermon was poorly illustrated, the music was too old-fashioned, the publicity was dull, the church doors were too yellow…. From talking with Charlie, you get the impression that he would only ever be happy if church was perfect – which it isn't going to be this side of heaven. No-one gets too close to Charlie – certainly not Felix or Sarah – and that's probably because you need to have a very thick skin to survive! Where is the love? That's Charlie the Critic.
How do you think about church? Felix the Floater thinks church is a social club. Sarah the Spectator thinks church is a theatre. Charlie the Critic thinks church is a disappointment. How do you think about church? The purpose of studying this passage in Romans 12 is to see how God thinks about church – and to realign our thinking with his thinking.
But before we do that, we need to be willing to change the way we think about church. So let's pray together.
Father, we are by nature stubborn people. We think we are right and we don't want you to tell us that we need to change our thinking. Through this Bible passage, please, by your Spirit change our thinking about church and help us to put it into practice. In Jesus' name, Amen.
1. Change your thinking about yourself! (v.1-3)
Turn with me to Romans chapter 12. The section of the Bible we're looking at this evening is part of a letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. And in the letter he explains firstly the content of the gospel message – in chapters 1-11 – the good news about Jesus and his death for us. Then in chapters 12-16, he then shows how to make a right response to the gospel message.
And the first thing Paul wants these Roman Christians to do is to change their thinking. Let me read chapter 12 verses 1-2.
"I appeal to you therefore (because of the gospel message), brothers, by the mercies of God (all that God has done for us in Jesus), to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
And the very first area that Paul wants the Romans to change their thinking about – before thinking about church – is themselves. That's my first point. Change your thinking about yourself (v.1-3).
"For by the grace given to me I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned."
Notice that Paul starts by addressing "every one" of the Roman Christians. Rather than addressing them as a whole community, he addresses them individually. You, Felix. You, Sarah. You, Charlie.
And what's his message? Don't think of yourself more highly than you ought to, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement.
When I studied biology at school, we studied a module on drugs and alcohol. And one of the key take-home lessons from the module was that drinking alcohol impairs judgement. One lesson, I remember watching a video of a lorry driver who had to drive a lorry between two large traffic cones. First time round, they asked him:
"What size gap do you think you can drive through?" He estimated a certain distance. And then drove between the cones. It was tight, but he got through. Sober judgement. The camera zoomed in on two shots of whisky. The lorry driver drunk them, then returned to his lorry. And the scientists again asked him: "What size gap do you think you can drive through?" He confidently estimated a certain distance, which was significantly narrower than the distance before and then drove up to the cones and completely crushed one of them. Sober judgement. Safety.
Alcohol-impaired judgement. Disaster.
As Christians we've got to see ourselves with sober judgement. That means we need to see ourselves as we really are – not as we think we are. We are to measure ourselves, verse 3 "according to the measure of faith that God has assigned".
I think the "measure of faith" Paul is talking about here is the gospel message which he has explained in chapters 1-11 of Romans. He's saying that each one of us needs to keep measuring ourselves against the gospel message. We need to remember our sin, how unworthy we are to be God's children, yet how kind God was in sending Jesus to die in our place to pay for our sin and divert God's just anger away from us.
We need to see ourselves as we really are – undeserving enemies of God, who have been welcomed back as children of God. That's sober spiritual judgement. If we don't remember the gospel message, our estimate of ourselves will be completely wrong. And that will lead to absolute disaster in church life. Because if we don't see ourselves with sober gospel judgement we'll spend all our time and energy looking down on one another and competing against one another spiritually, rather than serving and loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
So Charlie the Critic needs to go back to verse 3. If he wants to help people in the church family rather than hurting them, he first needs to see himself with sober judgement. Then – and only then – will he be in a position to encourage Felix and Sarah to get properly stuck in to the local church family. That's my first point. Change your thinking about yourself!
2. Change your thinking about church! (v.4-5)
My second point zooms into verse 4 and 5. Change your thinking about church!
Paul switches the camera from ourselves to others – to how we should see the church family.
"For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
Paul uses the image of the human body. One body, lots of parts: head, shoulders, knees and toes and eyes and ears and mouth and nose. Lots of parts – all part of one body. Simple. But this simple illustration has big consequences for us. Because, in the words of verse 5, we are individually members one of another. Christians belong to each other.
I wonder if you've ever thought of it like that before? As Christians, we belong to one another. We are members of each other. We are part of the same family. If you're Christian, there's a real sense in which you belong to the other Christians here this evening sitting around you. We belong to each other. If you're not Christian this evening, looking in – this is something to factor in to your decision-making – becoming a Christian is an individual decision, but it's also a decision to join the church.
And this affects the way we go about choosing a church. Choosing a church to join is not like picking which tennis club to join or which flat to live in. We're choosing our spiritual home – even if it's just for a year or three years of study. So don't choose a church casually. Pray! Ask Christian friends for advice! Find a church where the Bible's message is taught clearly! Find a church where you would be happy to invite friends who are not Christian along! Find a church where you want to belong!
Secondly, don't take too long to choose. I remember when I went away with the school Christian Union for a weekend. I had just become a Christian, I was about to go to university and I had no idea how to find a church there. I think I was planning to check out 4-5 different churches and then maybe make a decision about where to go at the end of the first term. But one short conversation I had with one Christian teacher that weekend changed my thinking. He said to me: "Don't spend too long looking around for a church! Find a good church quickly and settle there." I remember being a bit taken aback, but those words of advice stuck with me. And so when I went up to university, I did find a good church to belong to – quickly – and praise God, I grew in my faith. Why did the teacher challenge me? He didn't want me to be like Felix the Floater. To this day, I thank God for his advice.
3. Commit yourself fully to church! (v.6-13)
I think this attitude of commitment to church is very counter-cultural, particularly for those of us who have grown up in Western cultures. Culturally, we don't want to get too close for comfort! We prefer to keep people at arm's length! So in practice we keep our distance from others at church!
'Yes, by all means, get to know people, but don't become vulnerable.' 'Yes, build relationships with others, but don't become over-attached.' 'Yes, go to church and Sundays (and maybe Focus on Tuesday if you really must), but don't get too involved in peoples' lives beyond that. It's uncomfortable. It's messy. It's unpredictable.'
I hope we can see that this 'keeping others' at arm's length' attitude has no place in God's plans for church.
We've seen already in verses 4 and 5 that as Christians, we are inter-dependent, not independent. We belong to each other. And we see here the outworking of that: in verses 6 to 13 that we are called to serve one another and to love one another.
Let's start with service. Verses 6-8:
"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness."
The gift list in verses 6 to 8 is not exhaustive. There are many other gifts that could be mentioned. The point that Paul is making is that all of us have gifts – and we should get on with using them in the life of the local church!
No-one here this evening can say, 'I'm useless. I have nothing to offer others/ God.' Yes you do! No-one can say, 'I'll keep my gifts to myself' No – you have no right to do that! Use them to serve others!
Now sometimes when people arrive at a large church like Jesmond Parish Church, looking to serve, they think: 'Hmmm… I think I'll probably choose a smaller church where they really need help with serving.' Of course, there are many good smaller churches here in Newcastle and it's great if God has given you a passion to go there and serve. Go for it! But large churches have equal needs for serving, particularly if, as we have done, they have recently planted another church.
We have dozens of children who need reliable godly Sunday school teachers on a Sunday morning – could that be you? We need musicians and PA desk helpers who can commit to serving us – could you help with that? We need people who can help with cooking lunch for Primetime, which meets on Thursdays while many of our church family are working or looking after children – can you help?
And of course, the vast majority of 'serving' goes on behind the scenes without a 'role title' or a 'JPC staff badge'. Hospitality. A listening ear. A comforting word. A challenge in season. A lift home on a wet evening. Daily prayers for your small group members.
The point that Paul is making here is that all of us have different gifts – and we should all get on with using them to serve others! Sarah the Spectator needs to hear verses 6 to 8. Church is not a theatre production to observe, but a family to serve. And that point needs particular underlining in a large church like ours.
But there's a message which Charlie, Felix and Sarah all need to hear together as Paul addresses the Christian community as a whole (v.9-13).
"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality."
The problem is not understanding these verses. It's doing them. Because we all want the companionship and support of the church family, but not the hard work and commitment of loving others, including new students joining our church family.
Let me speak more directly to our Newcastle-based church family, including any returning students.
Over the next month or so, we are likely to welcome around 100 new students – UK and International – into our church family.
Well the first test of whether or not we take verses 9 to 13 seriously is this: will we welcome them? Many of them are in a new city – or a new country. They've plucked up the courage to come and check out one of our Sunday services. Are we willing to pluck up the courage to introduce ourselves to them? To chat to them? To let them know we're delighted that they have joined us?
But there's more! After the new students have been here with us for a while, the next test is this: will we keep caring for them? Sometimes it can be easy to look out for newcomers (which is great), but then we can start to ignore people who come regularly. Often we assume they are OK spiritually because they are coming to Sunday services and Focus or JPC Internationals each week. Or if they aren't coming much any more, we assume they must have joined another church. No. Let's keep caring for our new students. Praying for them regularly. Touching base every now and then. Meeting up. One other thing I think we need to work on is applying the Bible re-actively to the different situations students find themselves in (difficult housemates, exam stress, dating questions), as well as rightly pressing ahead in pro-actively teaching them in talks and Bible studies.
But there's more! When the new students have finished their studies, the test of our love is this: do we keep in touch? Think now of one person you know who has recently left Newcastle, perhaps a student. Do you know if they are settled into church? Could you ring them? Could you even visit them? Instead of: 'Out of sight, out of mind'. Think: 'Out of sight, in our hearts.' That's the costly kind of love we're called to.
Change your thinking about yourself!
Change your thinking about church!
Commit yourself fully to the church family!