God Centred, Community Focussed

Today we begin our series focussed on the strap line emblazoned on the noticeboard outside. Probably you haven’t noticed because these things become background and we don’t really read them. I don’t know how long this has been the strap line for the church, but presumably it is supposed to say something about who we are as a community of believers in Gravesend and what we stand for. So what do you think it means? We need to explore and understand what we are telling the community outside about ourselves and see if we are actually fulfilling what we say. Mission statements, straplines and logos are great for people to latch onto, but if they are not put into practice, they are just empty words. In any case, people will have their own understanding of what those words mean, which is why we need to be clear in our own minds and consistent in our living as Christians.

At the end of July the leadership had an away day during which they spent some time thinking and praying about what we mean by the message we proclaim from our board. Certain themes emerged from those discussions:

  1. Growing in discipleship – this is something we are all involved with together as we follow Jesus Christ, but how do we do that?

2. We need to develop and use people’s gifts in the work of the church. As a community of believers we will grow closer together and be more effective for the Kingdom, if we use the gifts and abilities we have and all play our part.

3. Developing a strong sense of community that spans the cultures. We are a multi-cultural church, but that is not always reflected in the things we do and in our worship.

4.What should be our community involvement beyond the walls of the church? Churches have always been involved in serving their local communities as part of their witness to Jesus Christ, but the role of the church has changed with society. Also, it is harder to get to people to commit to serving in this way. So what should our community involvement look like?

These are important questions we need to answer in order understand and work towards fulfilling what we proclaim on the noticeboard: God Centred, Community Focussed.

We are going to begin with the first part in the run up to Christmas: God Centred. Actually I want to change this and it is not just a matter of playing with words. We don’t have a vague concept of God and who God is, but believe that he is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is what I was talking about last week when we looked at the exclusive claim of Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life. To claim to be God centred is fine for religious people, but we are more specific than that, because we are Christ centred. Let me explain. There are many people and faiths that are God centred – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Agers. However, what is understood by God will be different for each of these groups. When we say that we are God centred, we are not meaning a general concept of God that anyone can buy into on their own terms, or to be so vague as to be meaningless. 

We don’t believe that God is found in nature, but revealed in creation. We don’t believe that God is in the stars, but that they declare God’s glory. We don’t believe that God is a higher power on whom we call to face each day, but a loving heavenly Father revealed in Jesus Christ. In fact we are people who are Christ centred and that is what we are going to be exploring in the coming weeks, changing the strap line from God centred to Christ centred. It is what the passage I read from Ephesians 1 demonstrates:

  • It begins with Jesus 
  • It is through Christ that we receive every spiritual blessing.
  • It is through him that we are chosen 
  • We are adopted into the family of God because Jesus 
  • We receive grace and redemption through Jesus 
  • The will of the Father is revealed through Christ
  • All things in heaven and earth will come under his headship

It is important to grasp this if we are not to disappear in a general concept of God that suits pluralism, but doesn’t represent the god of any faith, let alone the God we worship as Christians. As we explore what it means to be Christ centred, we will begin with the uniqueness of Christ by looking at Colossians chapter 1. Here we have a clear description of Jesus, as well as the effect of his sacrifice. We will move onto to consider the confidence we can have as Christian believers. In 1 Peter he says that we are a chosen people, royal priesthood and holy nation with the express purpose of declaring the praises of God and calling people out of darkness into his marvellous light. As a result we don’t need to be ashamed of the gospel, as Paul tells us in Romans 1, because it is the power of God for salvation. As confident Christians we need to be walking in discipleship as we immerse ourselves in the teaching of Jesus and let it mould and shape us (John 14). As we understand more we will realise that our whole outlook on life needs to change and that it is not about us and our consumer desires, but about Jesus and the community of believers (Romans 12). And so we live out this salvation for life – life to the full here and now, and for eternity, so we will explore what it means to bear fruit (Galatians 5).

Being Christ Centred must inevitably lead to a change in outlook and lifestyle and lead us into community. From the beginning of creation, God declared that it was not good for people to be their own, hence the creation of male and female and the command to have children. The people of Israel were to be the ones who demonstrated a community that was God centred, living accordingly. Jesus wasn’t a lone ranger, but gathered a community of disciples, which did extend beyond the twelve. The church was to be and is to be Christ centred and a clear demonstration of what it means to be followers of Jesus. Hm…

We often hear about wanting to be church like that in Acts and breakaway groups setting themselves up as more biblical than others. What I think is important is that we learn from what we have available in the New Testament, realising this was a church learning as it went and seeking to be followers of Christ in their time and generation. That will not always look the same in every generation – and they certainly wouldn’t recognise the church as it is today. However, foundational to their understanding of church was this sense of community. The context of the early church required that they built a strong community of disciples and perhaps because the culture was more focussed on family and community, sharing worship as part of life, the bonding together with those who believed in Jesus may not have been such a hurdle. Jesus had said they were to love one another to show they were his followers; and they understood that they needed each other in a challenging and hostile world. 

We also need the strength of community, because society is no less hostile to Christian disciples today. The challenge we have is that we are not community minded, but have an individualistic outlook. So when we consider community at Emmanuel this is an aspect we need to consider. One of the reasons for holding fellowship meals – and don’t forget the one coming up on 22nd September – is for us to develop that sense of community and to get to know people we don’t usually talk with. The purpose of having refreshments in the way we have today, is to understand 0930 and 1100 service people are part of the same church; to encourage us to talk with each other; to understand that fellowship over food and drink is part of our worship together as we express community and a desire to be with our brothers and sisters.

As we explore what it means to be community focussed in the New Year, we will look at:

  • The importance of praising God together and learning from the Bible and our experience of Christian life.
  • We will be seeking to expand our prayer life as a church. We will have completed the Prayer Course by the end of November. There is a church prayer day on Saturday 30th November – put it in your diary. But prayer needs to be a more important part of our life as a church and we will explore different ways of engaging in prayer.
  • We will be considering how together, doctrine and practice was developed in the early church as they reflected on Scripture and their life experience.
  • We will be thinking about how people responded in support of each other in adversity and how we can support and love one another as a Christian community.
  • We will also be thinking about accountability and bearing witness as a Christian community, as well as the need to build up and encourage one another.

I think there is more to being community than just focussing on ourselves – although I don’t agree with the statement about church being the only organisation existing for the benefit of others. If we don’t do all that I have already talked about, we will cease to function as a community of believers. However, the church throughout history has never just been focussed on itself and was foundational in establishing the major services we see in the community today. Although these major services have now been taken over by the state, the church still has an important role in being salt and light locally and nationally – and that is not just about telling people what we are against! What is more, people don’t respond to words only or people preaching on street corners. They look for integrity and practical action in society. 

What we see in the ministry of Jesus is that he crossed boundaries and was out in the community and not just in the synagogue or temple. Both go together. It is from the place of prayer and praise before God that we are equipped and strengthened to go out and be Christian people in the week. We will explore the interaction of Jesus with all sorts of people and consider how the church has continued to do that across the world as well as here in Britain. What we see in the ministry of Jesus is God incarnate at work in the world with all those he met. How are we serving our local community and do we leave it just to a few people? We have people involved with Street Pastors, Schools Pastors and Sanctuary. They cross boundaries and barriers in their acts of service. We have a respected presence at the bootfair each month, Make Lunch in the holidays and the Youth Club is starting again. 

We also need to be discerning and sometimes need to lay things down. This has happened with the Book Shop, Who Let the Dad’s Out and now Parent and Toddler. Whatever we do, needs the community of the church and reaches out to those who don’t otherwise come. In all of this, the question is, what do we bring that is distinctive and different from the other organisations that run these things? We will explore Matthew 25 in relation to our involvement in the community and as a challenge to us as a church concerning our outlook.

So there we have the road map for our time up to Easter, but we need to remember it needs to go beyond good theory and move into practice. That begins with us as the worshipping community of Jesus here at EBC. It is essential we keep our focus on Christ crucified and raised from the dead, holding onto what Paul said at the beginning of Romans:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of Godthat brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

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