Once [jurisprudence] departs from that the security that justice possesses only in God and his Word, practitioners of jurisprudence are able to deduce justice from no other source than tradition and society’s sense of justice. And since this sense of justice is as unstable as the waters of a flowing stream, it steadily undermines the security of the concept of justice. – Abraham Kuyper
What do you think active membership in a church looks like? I can remember often hearing people bragging about being at the church every time the doors were open, but is simply showing up for services enough? Should a member make a goal of being at everything going on in the life of the congregation?
I’ve thought through what the expectations of the average member should be in a congregation and so now as part of our new member class I encourage everyone to make it a goal to worship, to connect, and to serve.
Over a series of posts I want to discuss each of these in more detail, but first I want to make note of two things about membership commitment and activity in the local church.
First: No one is average. A wise farmer in my first congregation used to joke that while the average summer might have the perfect amount of rainfall for a good crop, average that meant that about half the years would be a drought and the other half a flood. Both of these destroyed crops, so the average was simply an ideal between extremes that didn’t actually occur too often in reality. Our lives our like that. Everyone goes through times of more or less energy and free time. There is a difference in parents of small children, an affluent retired couple, and a grad student with debt and unsure of where she will be next year. So we take into account the season of life we are in and don’t feel guilty if our God ordained calling to care for an elderly parent prevents a lower priority of helping out with Bible school. Likewise, if we are in a place in our life where we have more time and more expendable income, we should avoid doing the “bare minimum” to assuage our guilt and get on with pursuing pleasure and entertainment more than serving and worshiping God. So when I speak of average member commitment, I mean take this as a starting point to think through how to best fulfill the vows you made to God and to the congregation when you became a member.
Second: It doesn’t take the institution of the church to be a “Christian” activity. Obviously, gathering together with the saints for worship requires the church. And while we need Christians to support and serve in the congregation. Loving your neighbor doesn’t require the approval of the board of elders. Sharing God’s grace and love doesn’t require a committee. This should be obvious, but as a Pastor I am too aware of my own tendency to think of needs in the church as examples of Christian service: teaching a bible class, helping with the nursery, cleaning the church kitchen, or preparing a budget. These are of course needed. But leading your family in prayer and bible study, sharing a meal with a lonely neighbor, or mentoring a child at the Boys and Girls Club is no less Christian. So as we look at these three ways Christians should be involved with their local congregation, keep in mind that this doesn’t exhaust all of what discipleship means. There are other personal and family disciplines and commitments, but I’m only discussing those related to obligations to the local congregation. Also, while members should be involved in the ministry and work of the church, one’s Church involvement shouldn’t take so much time and energy that there is none left to give to your family, neighbors, and community. Salt is meant to add flavor to food, not to more salt. Light is to shine in the darkness, not illumine a bright room.
So with these in mind, I’ll next discuss why every Christian should be committed to gathering for worship every Lord’s Day.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Timothy, my fellow worker, greets you; so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen. I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:17-27 ESV)
The place was a garden, typifying the paradise of old. For in this place, as it were, all places were recapitulated and our return to humanity’s ancient condition was consummated. For the troubles of humanity began in a paradise, while Christ’s sufferings, which brought us deliverance from all the evil that happened to us in times past, began in this garden. — Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th Century)
It began in a garden, that is where our sufferings and difficulties began. God, who is named “I AM”, had made man in His image, to be in a relationship with him and placed him in a garden. To tend it and keep, or guard it. God was present with them, walking among them in the cool of the evening. So in this garden-temple, Adam was to have been a priestly king, reigning over all creation. We had access to the Tree of Life, and one prohibition. To not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, “for on the day you eat of eat you shall die”. To disobey meant death.
But in the garden our troubles began. Adam’s wife, his fit helper was deceived. The serpent had entered the garden of life and made them question God’s Word. They questioned God’s good gifts. He tempted them – your eyes will be open – you will be wise – you will see – you will know – you will be enlightened, illuminated. You will be like God. And so man, tempted to be God came to the Tree of testing and disobeyed. Adam and Eve ate. And their eyes were open. But the serpent had tricked them, they didn’t know all that would happen to them. Their eyes were open to their nakedness, weakness, brokenness, and vulnerability. They had traded God’s wisdom for their own, light for darkness, righteousness for sin. And in shame they hid themselves from the all-knowing God.
And in the evening, God seeks them, he comes to them calling and asking “Where are you?” God, who knows better than Adam and Eve, asks “Where are you?”. Adam answers, “I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” God, who keeps his word, pronounced his curses on man (he who is from the ground will return to the ground), woman, the serpent, the ground. All of Creation, of which Adam was charged to be a steward, was disrupted and not least our relationship with a Holy God. He lost all that the Father had given him. And God drove them from the Garden, sending them East of Eden and leaving the Garden to be guarded by cherubim, angels bearing swords, blocking the way to the Tree of Life. But not before promising that one day the Seed of the woman would bruise the Serpent’s head, yet only by having his own heel bruised.
And Adam’s children grew in their sin and rebellion. As permanent residents East of Eden they continued to seek their own wisdom, to be as gods, and to hide themselves from the ever seeking, all knowing “I Am.”
It began in a garden, that is where his suffering began. It was a Garden named Gethsemane where Jesus went with disciples after the Passover meal. Jesus, the very Image of God, the firstborn over all creation walked with his disciples in the cool of the evening. He came to this garden, knowing that it was for him a garden of death. His words to Judas at the Last Supper showed that he was well aware that he was to betray him and rather than hiding from his pursuers he goes outside the Temple City, they go East across the Kidron to a place Judas knew well.
And Judas comes. He is leading a band of the king’s soldiers, some of the priest’s officers, or temple guards, and Pharisees, who put their words in place of God’s word. We see in this throng an reflection of Adam’s fall. We were to be priests and kings, to obey the word and guard the temple. Now these come seeking the destruction of their true sovereign, steward usurpers, claiming as their own their delegated authority. They come with “lanterns and torches”, seeking the one who had told them “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” But this is the foolishness of those who are tempted to be wise apart from God, who seek the “know good and evil” by their own grasping. We refuse the Light of Life and fashion our own dim torches to fumble around in the shadows.
Before they can say anything Jesus, “knowing all that would happen to him”, comes forward and asks them “Who do you seek?”. This man does not hide. He knows the answer better than they do. They don’t have a clue who he is, but answer “Jesus of Nazareth”. And Jesus answers, “I AM”. There is no hiding from the ever seeking, all knowing “I Am”.
God himself has come to us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The light that enlightens the who world, who is life and the light of man shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not comprehended, has not overcome the light. God himself coming was the only way for creation’s curse to be removed. The sin of a man who would be as God, could only be reversed by a God who would become man. The First Adam’s disobedience could only be cured by the obedience of the Second Adam.
When Jesus identified himself with the divine “I Am”, they drew back and fell to the ground. He tells them that if they were seeking him to let the disciples go. John reminds us that Jesus had just prayed, “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” The Second Adam is a perfect Steward of all with which he is entrusted, promising that of those whom the Father has given him, “no one will snatch them out of my hand.” But Peter draws his blade and strikes, as though he would protect the Lord who commands angels with a sword. Peter put away your sword. The Garden is not won back through force, but by humility, suffering, and the Son of Man laying down his own life.
Peter, put your sword into its sheath, “shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me.” The cup is God’s judgment and wrath on sin. “it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another. For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”
But this cup is taken not by the wicked, but by the Righteous One. God’s judgment and wrath is poured out on the cross. Our return to the Tree of Life won back by way of the Tree of Death. God, who keeps his word, crushed the serpents head. Himself become the woman’s Seed, himself having his heel bruised.
Where Adam grasped to be as God and disobeyed, losing all that he had been given and earning death; Jesus, the second Adam, emptied himself to become Man, obeying the Father to the point of death on the Cross, saving all he had been given and winning everlasting life.
Quick to Forget
I recently returned from a visit with a missionary organization in Honduras where I taught a little and got to see the work they were doing in supporting church plants, providing and supporting medical care, providing food etc… My return was following a large amount of snow, so my flight from Houston to Memphis that evening was cancelled. As I was waiting outside for the van that was to take me to a motel I was tired of travel, I was missing my family, and I was worried about not getting home in time to preach Sunday morning. The time for the shuttle to arrive past, and the longer I waited the more I felt my temper rising. Then, in the midst of my growing irritability it struck me. A little over twenty-four hours earlier…
- I had been shown pictures of a 6 month old infant who weighed only thre and half pounds due to malnutrition. The mother had been breast feeding on a diet of one tortilla a day.
I had prayed with a nascent congregation over land to build a food distribution center and church that had been given in a community whose main source of income was sorting through a massive trash heap for recyclables.
I had visited a hospital where patients had to provide their own sanitary water and X-rays might have to be postponed due to unreliable electricity.
And I was getting angry because the heated van that would take me to a comfortable room where I would shower in uncontaminated water and get a night of sound sleep was ten minutes late.
My anger quickly turned to gratitude for the comforts I enjoy and repentance for taking them for granted. I have felt shame for my unappreciative and entitled attitude before, as have most Americans who’ve served on short-term mission trips. What struck me this day was how quickly I had forgotten and lost perspective. It’s amazing how soon insights we have about life and what’s truly important is lost.
This seems to be a part of the Christian life. I can remember times of feeling deep intimacy with God, when prayer seemed to flow, I appeared to be growing in grace, and I had a stronger sense of God’s presence my prayer. In those moments I thought how could I give this up? Why would I not devote myself to prayer and pursuing holiness? Then at some point shortly after I noticed that it had been too long since I had really prayed and I had returned to habitual sins I just knew had been conquered.
So why is it that I can thank God for healthy children one afternoon and the next be grumpy about a late van? That I can feel such a deep communion with God that the fields and trees I drive past seem to radiate his glory but by that evening feel resentment about my life?
An element of all sin is ingratitude. Like a spoiled child opening a gift and saying “Thanks, but why didn’t you get me something else?”, rather than being thankful to God for his good gifts, we seek to find our security or joy in something other than what he gives. If someone is greedy, they are not saying about money “Thank you God for what you have given me!”, but “Is that all?”. If someone is sexually promiscuous, rather than accept with gratitude the gift of sexual intimacy as part of a complete commitment of one’s self to another, they have complained that God’s arrangement is too confining and seek to fashion a better alternative to the offered gift.
So under this ingratitude is a lack of faith, a lack of trust that God truly seeks what is best for us. If we are not thankful it is because deep in our hearts we believe that there is something better than what God, in his providence, has given us. We’re not trusting him to be our strongest security or deepest joy. Do we really believe God works all things for our good? Or do we not often believe that to follow Christ is to settle for something less.
If the root of ingratitude is a lack of trust that God lavishes his love on us, then the remedy is not to stir up a sense of guilt about what I have in comparison to others, or even of the ugly ingratitude, but to be reminded that God showers us with more than we can ask or imagine from the riches of his glory. We need to daily be reminded of our blessings in Christ, to “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits”, (Psalm 103:2). This is part of our daily repentance, our continual turning from anything we trust to provide our deepest joy other than Christ. But we also to remind each other as Christians of God’s faithfulness and blessings. One of the reasons for us to gather with the church on Lord’s Day is to hear again of God’s faithful love and unearned kindness and to come to the table where we taste and see that the Lord is good.
Do you promise to serve Christ in his church by supporting and participating with this congregation in its service of God and its ministry to others to the best of your ability?
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, 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.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 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. 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.
(Romans 12:1-8 ESV)
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:1-14 ESV)