Sunday, November 29, 2015

Boon Companions

2 John 1–3 (NKJV)
 The Elder, To the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all those who have known the truth, 2 because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.

It is common for Christians to pit truth and love against one another. On the one hand are those Christians zealous for truth: we must dot every “I” and cross every “t” and those who cross their “t” at a slant are suspect theologically. These folks become so zealous in their pursuit of the “truth” that no church is good enough, no teacher faithful enough – except for that internet teacher across the country with whom it is not necessary to engage personally.

On the other hand are those Christians zealous for love: we must be tolerant and accept one another no matter what. Are you teaching that Jesus’ resurrection is simply a myth and fable that celebrates the enduring power of the human spirit? That’s okay – we both believe in the resurrection, don’t we? Are you counseling married couples that it’s okay to divorce in order to achieve their personal happiness? That’s alright – we both believe in marriage, don’t we? Let’s all just love one another and accept one another and get along because, after all, “God” is love, isn’t he or she or it?

But John treasures both truth and love. He writes to the elect lady whom he loves in truth. He does this in company with all others who have known the truth, because of the truth which abides in us. And so he pronounces God’s blessing upon the elect lady and her children in truth and love. For John truth and love are not competitors but companions.

The relationship between truth and love – a passion for what God has revealed in His Word and for God’s people – is like that between our bones and our flesh. Truth is the skeletal structure; love is our flesh. Truth by itself is cold, hard, lifeless and as scary as a skeleton. Love by itself is a formless blob, unable to hug, unable to proect, unable to move. Our flesh and bones working together enable us to do all that which we want to do. And, spiritually, truth and love perform the same function. Each alone is lifeless and useless but together they enable us to glorify God and love our neighbor.

So John reminds us today not to pit truth and love against one another. We are to embrace with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength what God has revelaed in His Word – and we are to use what we’ve learned to love and cherish those whom God puts in our path.

Reminded of our tendency to pit truth and love against one another and to neglect one for the other, let us seek the Lord’s forgiveness and His grace to treasure them both. And as you are able, let us kneel together as we confess to the Lord.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Church our Mother

2 John 1–3 (NKJV)
 The Elder, To the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all those who have known the truth, 2 because of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.

Today we begin a series of exhortations from John’s second epistle – one of the shortest books of the Bible. John identifies himself quite simply as “The Elder” who writes to “the elect lady and her children.” As an “elder” John identifies himself as one whom Christ called to shepherd a specific congregation in the fear of God. As such, John writes to the “elect lady and her children” most likely a reference not to an individual woman and her actual children but to a specific congregation and the members of that congregation. This is confirmed by the way he closes the letter. He writes, “The children of your elect sister greet you. Amen.” John’s epistle is a letter from his congregation to theirs.

Note, therefore, two things about John’s title for the church, “the elect lady and her children.” First, John personifies each local church as a lady chosen by God: he writes to “the elect lady” and his congregation is the “elect sister.” This means that Trinity Church too is a lady and to be treated as such. But not only is the church a lady, she is also elect – chosen, selected by God to represent Him on earth and to be His peculiar people. John’s choice of feminine imagery, not only “elect” but an “elect lady”, fits with Paul’s identification of the church as the bride of Christ.

Second, members of the congregation are called “her children.” John writes to the “elect lady and her children” and sends greetings from “the children of your elect sister.” The local, visible church, in other words, is our mother. And as our mother, we are called upon to honor her and support her, to esteem her and value her. John wants us to apply the 5th commandment, to “honor your father and mother”, not only to our earthly parents but also to our spiritual parents. We honor the our Heavenly Father and we honor the Church our Mother, the bride of Christ. So even as Jesus, the husband of the elect lady, pursues her holiness, so we, as children of the elect lady, are to honor her in the fear of God.

Notice, therefore, that John’s manner of address expresses a robust theology of the church. Our local church, in our case Trinity Church, is our mother. Therefore, we are to love her in the truth. So John Calvin writes:

… let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know [the visible church]. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives… God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.

So what of you? Have you loved and cherished the church, devoted yourself to her health and growth, prayed for her children, contributed to her stability, preserved her purity? John reminds you today to honor your mother.

So having heard these words, let us confess before the Father the ways in which we have failed to honor our mother. And as you are able, let us kneel as we confess together.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Ordinary Means of Grace

Luke 13:18–19 (NKJV)
18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”

As I have emphasized the last couple years at this time, we are often tempted to muddle our Christianity with our Americanness. This temptation to mistake our cultural mileau for Christian piety is not unique to us, but the particular ways in which our culture influences us are unique. One way our Americanness affects our conception of Christianity is our love affair with that which is spontaneous or new or different. We tend to grow tired of, what we call, the “same old thing” and have a hankering for some new fad to bring life back into our Christian walk.

But what Jesus articulates for us in his parables of the kingdom is that the way the Holy Spirit works both in our individual lives and in the life of His Church is better pictured by the growth of a tree than the lighting of a sparkler. Sparklers, of course, are fun and exciting – they burn bright and shed their fire on all around them. But sparklers soon burn out while trees, planted and taking root, slowly grow over time; growing almost imperceptibly, soaking up the nutrients in the soil and increasingly displaying the glory of their Creator.

This steady, slow, natural growth is the way Christ typically works in the lives of His disciples. Normal Christian growth involves long periods of steady plodding – plodding that brings prosperity but plodding nonetheless. Steady plodding. Few sprints; mainly marathons. A long obedience in the same direction.

You may not know, but the last five months in the Church Year are called “ordinary time.” It is a time of year when there are no special feasts and celebrations; just the regular time of the Spirit’s work in the Church. After the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit began working in the Church, gradually transforming the people of God into the image of Christ. Hence the color of this period is green, a color of growth. Tree-like growth.

So one thing that you probably noticed, if you’ve been at Trinity Church a while, is that for these last five months we have used the same greeting, the same words of confession, and the same version of the Creed. For five months. Why have we done this? There’s no biblical requirement that we do so. We could have changed them weekly, monthly, or periodically – and we have in the past. God has left such decisions to the wisdom of church officers. So why have we kept them the same the last couple years? To highlight that the course of our Christian lives is only occasionally interrupted by unusual acts and works of God. More typically God works in our lives through steady plodding, slow growth, gradual transformation – through what theologians have called the ordinary means of grace: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In a couple weeks we’ll be introducing some changes: entering a new church year when Advent arrives and we’ll have a different Call to Worship, a different Confession, a different Creed. Before we change, I wanted to draw to your attention the fact that for these last five months we haven’t changed. Perhaps you noticed; perhaps you’ve wondered if this is ever going to change. And perhaps you’ve thought the same thing about periods in your own life and spiritual development. And the message of Jesus is that He is at work growing His kingdom and even growing you – so trust Him and keep plodding.

Reminded that Jesus’ work in our lives is often gradual, like the growth of a tree, we are alerted that often our hankering for something spontaneous or new or different is not an impulse of our Christian faith but our Americanness. And this reminds us that we need to confess our fickleness to the Lord and ask Him to enable us to practice a long obedience in the same direction. So let us kneel as we confess our sins together.