Alpha 14 - What about the Church?
Good evening I hope you're sufficiently fed and watered.
Let me briefly introduce myself for those of you who don't know me.
During the week I work for a multi-national computer company, and on Saturday morning's I help to lead the men's Bible study group that we have in the Church,and on Sunday's I sit in the congregation, sing my socks off and get preached at.
I've been a Christian for about 3 years and for most of that time my wife and I have been coming to this church.
During that time I have helped to lead both the Y and Christianity Explained courses that we've done previously.
So even if you're still confused about the Christian message after next week, we do run other courses - different focuses, different styles.
So welcome to the penultimate Alpha.
Tonight's topic is the Church and we're going to be looking at:
Asking the question, "What is the Church?" might seem like a daft question since we are currently in a church, or at least in the church centre which is close enough!
- What is the Church,
- Why is it important, and
- Where do I fit in.
But if I'm asking the question then there must be more to the Church than just a building.
If you've ever looked into other religions, hopefully one of the things that has struck you by coming on this course is how Christianity is different from them.
Christianity is unique in a number of ways, but in common with other religions it has a building that is purpose-built for followers of that religion to worship in.
Muslims have their mosques, Jews have their synagogues, and Christians have their churches.
So here we have our first kind of church, the church building that we are all familiar with one way or another.
And many people see Christianity as being all about Christmas and going to church on Sundays.
But this building is not the only kind of church.
In the Old Testament there is a lot of talk about the Jewish Temple.
The Temple was very important at the time, since it was the only place on earth where you could be near the physical presence of God.
And the presence of God was in a room called the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holys, with a thick, 30 foot high curtain across the entrance.
That curtain was what separated the presence of God from His people, and only one person was allowed to go through the curtain into the Most Holy Place, and then only once a year.
Only the High Priest could enter that room and only after he had made sacrifices for his own sins and for the sins of God's people could he enter the Most Holy Place.
The sacrifices made were on behalf of all their sin, and only on this Day of Atonement, was the High Priest permitted to stand in God's presence.
All very interesting but what has that got to do with The Church?
After all we don't do sacrifices.
Well Christianity is all about Jesus, and mainly His death and resurrection.
Jesus is our High Priest, and he gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus is the ultimate atoning sacrifice, and it is through putting our faith in Jesus death on the cross that we are able to enter into God's presence.
Matthew records Jesus death like this (Matthew 27:50-51a):
"And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
The curtain that Matthew is talking about is that 30 foot high curtain covering the entrance to the Most Holy Place.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."
Which means that Jesus' death has opened the way to God for all who believe.
For those who have placed their faith in Jesus there is now nothing separating us from God.
But Jesus didn't stay dead, 3 days later He rose to life.
And it was following His resurrection that the Christian Church came into being.
Because it was after his resurrection that the Holy Spirit was poured out onto Jesus' disciples.
The Apostle Paul reminds the believers in Corinth with these words:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
If I am a believer, then as Paul reminded the Corinthians, I have the Holy Spirit in me, and if the Holy Spirit is in me, then the presence of God is in me.
1 Corinthians 6:19
And where was the presence of God previously? In the Temple; God's house.
And Paul also says this:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?
Paul is telling us in these verses that not only is each Christian a temple of the Holy Spirit but Christians corporately form God's temple, God's house.
1 Corinthians 3:16
God's house is no longer a lifeless building, but a house of flesh and blood.
And Paul at the beginning of this letter gives us a new meaning to the word "Church"
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
The believers in Corinth weren't just part of the church of God in Corinth, they were also part of the Church that includes everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:2
As Christians, we are part of a Universal Church (God's Church) which stretches throughout time, across continents, and across race and nationalities.
So this is our 2nd kind of Church, a living Church made up of people who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is where Christianity differs from other religions, the Church that matters to God is not the building but the people.
And it doesn't just include the people alive today, it includes those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us.
You can choose to become a member of the church that represents this fine building.
It doesn't cost you anything and you don't even have to be a Christian, you just have to turn up on a Sunday every now and then.
But there are two problems with one's membership of this first kind of church.
If however, you choose to become a member of God's Church, your membership will last for eternity, it is however costly, which I'll come to in a minute.
- This church building is not going to last forever and when it goes so does your membership of it.
- You aren't going to last forever either, and when you expire so will your membership of this church.
But by becoming a Christian you are automatically a member.
There are three common analogies the Bible also uses to describe God's Church.
In all of these analogies, God's Church is made up of the followers of Jesus Christ, and it doesn't matter whether you have become a Christian in the past few weeks, or the past few years, or if you have been a Christian for as long as you can remember.
- The body. The Apostle Paul used the body analogy a number of times - Christians make up the body of Christ with Christ himself as the head of the body.
- A house. God has said that He will not live in a house made by men, but that He will build His own house, a house of flesh and blood.
- A wedding. The book of Revelation talks about Jesus being the bridegroom and the Church as His bride coming together in heaven for eternity.
If you're a Christian then you are a member of God's Church.
But there's more to it than simply being a paid-up member of God's Church.
Paul's letter to the Romans has this to say:
15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father."
Here Paul is telling us that because we have the Holy Spirit we are part of God's family.
16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.
17Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
The word "Abba" at the end of verse 15, means "Daddy".
So as Christians, our relationship with Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, is that of a Father-Son or Father-Daughter relationship.
It is an intimate relationship that we have with God as our Father through the Lord Jesus.
And if God is our Father, and since he is also Jesus' Father, then Jesus is our brother.
Paul also gives us a clue as to why we need God's family.
In verses 17 and 18 Paul mentions suffering.
Which brings us to the second point - Why is Church important?
The Church is vitally important because as we will see, the Christian life is not easy.
This is what the Apostle Peter had to say about suffering.
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
Part of the message of Peter's letter is that life is painful, and Peter acknowledges that right at the beginning with the words "strangers" and "scattered".
To God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:
Grace and peace be yours in abundance.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.
6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
1 Peter 1:1-9
Peter wrote this letter to Christians when Nero was the Roman Emperor.
Nero had a really bad reputation, his vanity and lust for power knew no limits and when in AD 64 a fire destroyed half the city of Rome, Nero laid the blame on the Christians.
They had apparently brought a curse on Rome because they would not worship the Roman gods and they were accused of cannibalism, which was how Communion was interpreted.
Christians were arrested, executed, used as torches and thrown to the lions.
One of the writers at the time says that the Christians were requested to stop singing as they were being eaten by the lions because it was putting them off their food!
It was not a good time to be a Christian. Many had been thrown out of their home cities of Rome and Jerusalem and were now having a tough time in Turkey.
But amazingly because of this persecution the Gospel went out through the Roman world, so there were tiny islands of Christian faith surrounded by great oceans of paganism.
However, these pagan cultures soon followed Nero's lead and became increasingly hostile.
Peter's letter was written in the shadow of martyrdom as the Roman Empire became increasingly hostile to the Christian faith.
The lives of the early Christians were such a rebuke to the Empire that they were hated.
Their lives were a rebuke to it's godlessness, violence, greed and worship of power.
In this country, at the moment, Christians are not under that kind of persecution.
But I can't help wondering how long this situation will last.
How long will it be before Christians in this country, a country that many non-Christians still think of as a Christian land,
come under fear and suspicion and hate as they do in some parts of the world?
Last year, Region College in Vancouver produced this statistic:
"In 1998, one hundred and fifty seven thousand Christians were killed because of their faith."
In this country, whilst you would not expect to give your life for your faith, you may well find out what it is like to be alone, strangers, isolated and marginalised by your non-Christian friends and family.
It may get around that you've become religious, and you find yourself politely frozen out, not being invited to parties and the like.
Some of you may have already experienced some form of persecution simply by coming on this course.
Friends or family may be asking,
"What do you want to do that for?",
Being pressured to do something that you know is wrong,
telling you you're going through a phase;
"You don't really believe all that nonsense, do you?"
"No one will know",
But you know that God knows and on the Day of Judgement it really will matter.
"It doesn't really matter" they might say.
But the greatest source of pain can be your family, they may not understand.
Your core values will change and they will see you going in a different direction and that can be very hard.
Of course they know you so well, they know what buttons to press.
So when you come home saying you're a Christian, they may think,
"Okay, let's press this button and see if they're still a Christian!"
Please be under no allusions - being a follower of Jesus Christ is not easy.
And even experience and maturity does not make it any easier.
You just have different difficulties.
Being a Christian does not mean that God will take away your problems, but He will give you the grace to cope with them.
Be clear, be very clear - trials will come.
But these trials, whilst we may not think so at the time, are actually beneficial.
No I haven't gone mad, look at verse 7:
"These have come so that your faith - of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire - may be proved genuine and may result in praise glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed."
Trials are like exercise. You put your muscles under pressure so that you grow.
God will only allow us to undergo trials that He knows we can cope with, and that help us to grow and mature in our faith.
We need to remember that since we are God's children, no matter what happens, one day we will be in Heaven forever.
But in the meantime, because we know that Christ is with us and the future belongs to him we are filled with, at the end of verse 8, "an inexpressible and glorious joy".
The joy of knowing that ultimately we are on the winning side.
But even if we aren't persecuted for our faith it's so easy to give up or to give in.
When my wife and I started courting I wasn't a Christian but she was, and being used to sleeping with my girlfriends I expected her to sleep with me.
But she knew that having sex outside of marriage was not what she should be doing, and she was determined to do what was right.
But while we were going out, I gave my life to Jesus and my attitude to sex changed, and I was now determined to do what was right.
But even with both of us as Christians, and wanting to do what was right, it was still a struggle.
It even got to the point where we would be scared to kiss for too long, for fear of giving in.
It was one of the deciding factors in choosing a short engagement.
But how many times have we set out on a project, all enthusiastic about it, only to give up after a while?
One of the favourites is reading the Bible in a year.
You can get leaflets and even books that will take you through the whole Bible in a single year.
I had one of those leaflets last year, but one thing or another got in the way and I didn't get very far.
But even when we do give in to temptation or give up on doing what is right, we can turn to God, ask His forgiveness, ask for His strength to do better next time, and then get on with living in a way that pleases Him.
But why do we give up on things so easily, and how does being part of God's Family help?
Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a young Christian went to a wise old man and said,
"Wise old man, please help me. I have been a Christian for a while now but I seem to have lost the joy, the desire to pray and read the Bible that I once had. How can I get that back?"
The wise old man said nothing because he was very wise and gestured to the young man to sit down beside him in front of the coal fire.
"Please give me your answer wise old man", the young man said as he sat down beside the coal fire which was glowing a soothing red.
The old man smiled wisely and bade the young man to be quiet.
He then took a lump of red hot coal out of the fire and put it on the hearth in front of the young man.
They watched as the glow faded from the coal and it turned from red to black.
The wise old man looked enquiringly, as only wise old men can, at the young man.
The young man looked at the wise old man in expectation of the wisdom that he was about to utter, but the wise old man just smiled and placed the coal back into the fire.
When the coal had heated back up and was once again glowing from the heat that it had received from the other coals, the old man took it out of the fire again and placed it on the hearth in front of the now confused young man.
Again it turned black, and again the wise old man put it back into the fire, and again it began to glow red hot.
The wise old man continued to take the coal out letting it cool down and putting it back into the fire to heat up until the young man understood what the wise old man was telling him.
The young man left the wise old man and started meeting with like-minded Christians, and lived happily ever after.
And the moral of the story is this:
The young man was that lump of coal.
Away from the Church family, he had no means of receiving the fire that he needed to stay alive in the faith, he had no glow.
The book of Ecclesiastes puts it like this:
9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls and has no-one to help him up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
We give up on things easily because if we aren't encouraged then we loose our incentive.
This is why the Church family is important, because it is so easy for us to give up or give in to temptation.
The writer of Hebrews has this to say:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds.
25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Here in the letter to the Hebrews, we are being encouraged to remain faithful ("to hold unswervingly") because he who promised (that is God) is faithful.
So we should remain faithful to God because God remains faithful to us, even though there may be times when we doubt.
And verses 24 and 25 tell us we can do this by thinking up ways in which we can spur one another on towards love and good deeds.
But notice the interaction, it's from me to you.
I should be thinking what can I do, or say, in order to encourage others, not waiting for others to do those things for me.
We don't know the Day when Jesus will return, but each day is a day nearer, and so each day we need to be encouraged to remain faithful.
It is all too easy to give up and one of the most important things that belonging to the Church family gives to Christians is encouragement.
I've been a Christian for about 3 years now, and the only reason I've lasted that long is because various Christians in the Church have encouraged me in many different ways to keep going, to remain faithful.
And this brings us to our third point, where do I fit in the Church family.
Whether you've been a Christian for the past few weeks, or for a while, one of the most important services you can ever give to another Christian is to say something encouraging to them, or to do something encouraging for them.
Which means that you can't be an individual Christian, if you try and do it on your own you'll end up like that lump of coal out of the fire - dead without any glow.
And if I don't meet with the Church how can I encourage my Church Family? I can't.
And we can encourage each other in so many ways, simply greeting someone and listening to how their week has been.
Sometimes just listening is all you need to do.
At other times more may be required of you.
I met a woman in church a couple of weeks ago, she lived locally but had never been into this church.
She wandered by every now and then wondering what went on inside these walls.
That Sunday morning she decided to go in and see for herself.
She was she said, "Encouraged by the spirit of the place, by the friendliness of the welcome that she had received on coming in."
Those individuals who had welcomed her, and the Church as a whole as we went through the service had encouraged her to want to come again.
But the letter to the Hebrews doesn't mention when we are to meet or where, we are simply exhorted to not give up meeting together.
In the Church here in Virginia Water, as elsewhere, we have the opportunity to meet in small groups to pray together, to read and study the Bible together, to discuss some of the issues facing us, facing our world.
Church is not just for Sundays, for the men we have the Men's Bible study group on a Saturday morning, there are Bible study groups during the week for women and house groups once a fortnight, just to mention a few. They are all Church.
God wants to see everyone come into His kingdom, He doesn't want anyone to go to hell.
But there are two kinds of people in this world, in this room - those who are going to heaven and those that aren't.
And one of the reasons that God has created the Church is to tell people what He has done through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.
That's the reason for holding this Alpha course and why we are going to be doing a Christianity Explained course next year so that people have an opportunity not only to hear and discuss the Christian message but to also respond to it.
To those of you who have made that step of faith, who have repented and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, then let me encourage you to not give up, come to this church building and meet with your brothers and sisters regularly, and not just on Sundays.
And if you haven't yet made that step of faith, then let me encourage you to do so.
Ask yourself this question, "Why not, what's stopping me?"
If you want to discuss the answers that you come up with, then please do so, it's why we're here.
But there will always be questions.
Becoming a Christian does not provide you with all the answers, that's why we have faith.
Becoming a Christian does require you to put your faith, your trust, in God and His promises.
But it is certainly not a blind faith.
Through doing this course you have been given enough information to make that step of faith with your eyes open.
But there is a lot of information to take in, so if you feel that there are issues that are stopping you from taking that step to eternal life then please bring them up in the group or privately if you prefer, with one of your group leaders.
And it is only by thinking the issues through and asking questions can you come to a decision that is based on the truth.