Yet not I, but we/us/our in Christ…

We’re getting near to the end of our series in the Psalms of Ascent. Last Sunday was Psalm 133 & this week I’m busy working on the last one in Psalm 134. We’ve had a great time working through them. They’re just so honest about reality of life in a world opposed to the Lord, as well as being full of God’s awesome grace to us in Jesus. You can check them out here if you’re at all interested.

But the thing that really struck me this week is the way that they change as they go through. Gradually, as the people trek up to Jerusalem time & again, the songs they sing get less and less individualistic & more and more corporate, culminating in a full set of three rejoicing in the unity of God’s people under their anointed King, together as one.

As I preached through Psalm 133 last week it really hit home to me how much we, even as Bible people, have been infected and held captive by the individualistic air we breathe. How these pilgrims rejoiced to be together, to be part of God remaking his good world as he saves his one family in Christ, united in their great high priest. How they are refreshed and find God’s blessing, and even life itself, as they point one another to the Lord. It struck me how much this is the pattern of the whole Bible, from the one united family in Genesis 1 & 2, through to the one city/bride/people in Revelation 21 & 22. How Paul tells the Ephesians that we learn to grasp the length, height, depth, & breath of God’s love in Christ ‘together with all the saints’. It goes on, & on, & on…

And yet, it seems to me anyroad, that that’s not how most of us live our Christian lives, or maybe even disciple others to live theirs. How we’ve somehow made the most important part of evangelical piety sitting by yourself with your Bible on a morning. Perhaps more books are published on ‘how to read the Bible for yourself’, or ‘how to enjoy your Quiet Time’, than owt else. The Quiet Time, it seems, is sacred! That’s where we meet with God most, right? Get people having a meaningful Quiet Time, and they’ll grow like weeds! Right?

Now don’t get me wrong (& hear me clearly here!): Having time alone in the Bible is a good thing! It is! But, if it stops there, or even if that’s the place we see our primary interaction with God’s word each day, then as far as I can see we’ve missed the whole thrust of the Bible. You see, as I read my Bible, people grow, learn, mature, in community. With others.

And it’s not just the Quiet Time. I reckon it’s why the church is infected with the consumer mentality we all moan about all the time, at the same time as moaning about all the things we don’t like about our church. It’s why spending time together with God’s people outside of Sunday seems like a pain in the backside instead of a privilege. Why even prioritising turning up every Sunday seems a struggle for some! It’s why we so often don’t want to spend time socialising with those in our church, or praying together at a time that’s inconvenient to us. It’s why it’s so hard to find Christian hymns & songs (old or new!) that include words like ‘our, us, we’ instead of ‘me, my, & I’.

Let’s face it, when we sing Psalm 133 it goes summat like this: ‘How hard & inconvenient it is when God’s people live together in unity…’ (and before anyone points the finger, I’m as guilty as any!)

Because we’ve forgotten who we are. We’ve spent so long talking about what my identity in Christ is (again, no bad thing in & of itself), that we’ve forgotten that, biblically, our identity in Christ is far more important. That when God brings his people together as one he is remaking his world to be good again, as it was in the beginning. That pretty much all the pictures of God’s people in the New Testament are corporate: body, bride, temple, house, city. One of each, folks! That, as Paul tells the Romans, ‘in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ (Rom. 12.5). That it is the highest of privileges to give of ourselves so that our brothers & sisters might know God’s blessing. That, in fact, it is one of our first priorities.

How good & pleasant would it be in our churches if we all got hold of this?! If our first priority on a Sunday, during the week, whenever, was to seek out ways to bless our fellow church members. If we took Hebrews 10.24 seriously & really did put some effort into considering how we might encourage others by spurring them on to love & good deeds. And then crack on & do it…

How good & pleasant would it be regionally & nationally if we all got a hold of this?! If churches worked together in real partnership, seeking to bless one another & help each other show people Jesus. If we had a real vision to help those getting stuck into areas where there’s not much opportunity to hear the gospel. If we worked for real partnership that enabled us to show how Jesus brings people together in one people…

How good & pleasant would it be in our communities if we all got hold of this?! If people around us saw us living radically corporate lives together as one. If we actually lived out our oneness  in Christ for all around us to see. If people around really were shocked by how much we loved one another, day to day, in the real world…

That might make an impact, might it? Jesus, for one, reckoned it might (John 13.34-35)…

From Cowardice (and forgotten priorities) defend us…

Last week I suggested that the experience of the psalmist in Psalm 120 might not be the everyday experience for many evangelicals in the Uk, especially in small northern towns like ours. For him, life is war. A constant battle with those who want to fight him whenever he opens his mouth about the peace with the Lord that he has found. A war to maintain his identity as one who is for peace, when he’s surround by those who are for war.

I suggested that one of the main reasons for that is that it’s far too easy for most of us to live, almost our entire lives, in the Christian bubble. Outside of the work environment anyway, where let’s face it, we’ve got a job to do! This brings the obvious result of being at peace with most of those we spend our time with (or at least that’s the biblical ideal!). It also means we simply don’t share the gospel with those we know, because we don’t really know anyone. We don’t speak to people about Jesus, in David Robertson’s phrase, because we don’t speak to people! Which I’d like to think we all reckon is a problem!

This week, I want to suggest some of the reasons I think we’ve fallen into this trap, some of which show up sin in our lives and some which might be more systemic problems with how we operate. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but just a few that have been on my heart recently as I’ve thought about this. I want to stress that these are things I’ve experienced in a few different contexts (to greater and lesser degrees), and might not be true in every context. But I think they’re probably more common that we’d like to admit, so I’m just going to say them. If you’re not offended by at least one of the following, I’ve probably not expressed myself very clearly.

So here goes:

Time: I hinted at this last time, but it’s the most common reason (excuse?!) I’ve heard over the years (from myself as much as anyone else). We’re busy people. Most of us have jobs, time consuming ones at that. Lots of us have families, we’ve got to give them time. We’ve got our church commitments, that’s maybe 3-4 nights a week. I do my hobby. I need my me-time. I’ve got to use my time wisely. I need to be productive. I just don’t have time to spend hours sitting around building intentional relationships with unbelievers. But I reckon the Bible tells me that we always do what we most want to do. I reckon, as I quoted my friend Mez McConnell as saying at a conference a few years ago, that time is a massive idol for us. We always find time for what’s important to us. Which brings me to the second thing;

Comfort: If the number one idol is our time, I reckon our comfort runs it pretty close. Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t summat people generally are wild about, and experience tells me that evangelicals often aren’t that different. And crossing the pain line to spend time with people who aren’t necessarily like us, and especially to tell them they’re sinners in need of a Saviour, isn’t first on our list of things we find comfortable. And so, given the least hint of an excuse not to, we don’t do it. And partly that’s down to the fact that;

We’re just not that bothered: We generally talk a good game about evangelism. We are evangelicals after all! We’re desperate to see people saved. We’re desperate to see churches grow. But, as I look at my own heart and talk to other believers, I’m afraid I’m not that convinced. The fact is that, for most of us, nearly everyone we see today is headed for hell. I’m just not convinced that we do actually care that much. I’m not anyway. I can talk the talk all I want, but unless I do summat about it, it’s just words. As I said back in March, preaching on Amos 6-7, I don’t reckon you’re that much different.

Packed out church programs: In our first few years of marriage either my wife or I was out at some activity run by our church every night of the week (with the exception of Saturday) in term time; gathered worship, running clubs, mid-week meetings… Now that was exceptional, and I should have made sure it didn’t happen! But, all the time-idolatry issues aside, many people do live busy, complicated lives. A report out today tells us that the average working week for teachers is between 45-48 hours a week, with a quarter doing 60+ hours (I think they must have included the part-time teachers as well!). 40% of teachers said they usually work every evening, and 10% usually work at the weekend. As I former teacher, I reckon those figures are on the low side, and many jobs demand even greater commitment. When you add in the weeks where deadlines hit, or there are evening work meetings, or (shock/horror) an evening or two spent with the family, or a date night, or whatever, even a couple of church meetings a week doesn’t leave most folks with loads of opportunities to spend relaxed time building relationships with unbelievers around them. And most churches probably have more than a couple. But this is our church culture; the midweek, the kid’s club(s), the foodbank, the prayer triplet, the discipling (if we do that)… None of those are necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But together, they often don’t leave a lot of time for owt else. And here’s the thing I reckon we love it. Because it sits right in our comfort zone. Because often it’s rooted in us from our formative years. It’s just all we know. Which brings me to my last reason (where I reckon it could really kick off);

University Christian Unions: Steady on, hear me out before you start throwing stuff! Now, there’s a general consensus that most evangelicals in the Uk are university educated, I’ve seen numbers from 75-85%. And it’s true that for many of us those student years are either when we were converted, or when we really grew as believers for the first time. It’s why churches, and parachurch organisations, put so much effort into student ministry. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great thing. I led a student work at my last church for 6 years, and we saw real encouragements in it. But as kids sign up at Freshers’ Fairs around the country this week I wonder how many events the CU have got on. I wonder how many other societies young, zealous, Christian students will sign up for. I wonder how many of their friends outside of the CU they’re getting to know this week will still be those they spend time with this time next year. I wonder what they’ll make of the strongly worded advice from ‘Christians who work with students’ that they should not, under almost any circumstances, live with non-Christians in their 2nd and 3rd years. I wonder how many meetings those who serve on Committee will be asked to go to, and how much they’re able to prioritise spending time with unbelievers. I wonder how much time any of them will have free to spend with unbelievers once they’ve got through the main CU meeting, and the Small Group, and the Small Group Leader’s Bible study, and the CU Prayer meeting, and the Committee meeting, and their session with their Relay worker, not to mention all the meetings their church runs for Students. And that’s before they actually spend any time in the Library, or writing dissertations, or making up final projects: you know, being actual students! And if, for such a majority of evangelical believers today, that’s how their Christian lives started, why would we expect it to be any different once they graduate.

There’s many more reasons why we don’t spend time with people, and therefore don’t speak to them of Jesus. But these will do for now. Next week, I want to propose some ways we can seek to work through of these issues. But for now, recognise yourself? Cause I do…