Is it just 'trust God and it'll be okay?'

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It was a question raised during our first evening of our Growing Together course. Is this what discipleship boils down to? Whatever suffering we’re facing, trials we’re going through, sins we’re wrestling with, we simply need to trust God and it’ll be okay?

There’s a wonderful element of truth implicit within the questions. It recognises God’s power, as well as His inherent love, compassion and goodness that means He can, and will, work in every circumstance. It also recognises our limitations, there is both tragedy and evil in the world and our ability to change that is often limited. There are things that happen to us that we have no control over and consequences to our actions that we could never foresee.

However, the best discipleship is more than simply stating the truth of who God is.

Firstly, the best discipleship speaks truth out of an abundance of love and compassion for somebody. I’m reminded of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Jesus tells Martha the truth, that her brother will rise again (“It’ll be okay” – vs. 23) and that she must believe in Him (“Trust God” – vs. 27). But the whole episode is wrapped in Jesus’ love and compassion for her and the wider family and friends. He is deeply moved and troubled when He sees the distress of those who have lost a loved one (vs. 33,38) and He weeps with them (vs. 35). Jesus’ words of truth to Martha are said to someone He knew and loved. They’re not abstract, cold, and heartless platitudes.

Secondly, Jesus tells Martha the truth of who He is as the redeemer and how that was relevant to her struggle. In our discipleship we need both parts of the equation. We need to speak the truth and apply it to the particular sin or suffering someone is facing. Why does what Jesus has done and who he is, matter? How does it bring hope and comfort in this moment? Lazarus had died, so Jesus spoke of the hope of the resurrection He brought (vs. 25-26). He showed Martha why trusting in Him would ultimately mean it was okay. He spoke truths that were relevant and gave her genuine hope and comfort in the midst of her pain.

In our discipleship, we must be reminding one another of who God is. Yet we need to be doing it in a way that is relevant to the struggles someone is facing and out of a Christlike love and compassion for them.

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Growing Together

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And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
— Philippians 1:9-11

Sometimes when we talk about discipleship, maturity, or counselling it’s not clear where we’re heading. What are we seeking to mature into? What’s the target? Where are we heading and what are we hoping to achieve?

There are dozens of voices telling us who we should be seeking to become and what kind of person we ought to be. Some of those voices are external, the voices of our culture that lure us with the promises of acceptance and success if we follow them and threaten us with ridicule and isolation if we demur. Or the voices of parents, friends and family, who have their own particular vision of what and who we should be. Other voices are internal, the voices in our own minds that tell us what we deserve, can achieve, or have failed to become. Like a plant growing towards the sun all these voices give us a direction to grow in and a target to aim towards. 

In the passage above the Bible speaks another voice, it gives us a different direction to seek to grow in, a God-ward direction. Paul is writing to a church with his prayer and hope for who they will become and who they will mature into. It’s a maturity that’s rooted in love, lived out in wisdom, achieved through Jesus, and that brings God glory and praise. It’s a direction that we need to regularly turn back to. Our discipleship is a means of doing that, it’s a means of re-orientating ourselves towards a life that brings God glory and praise. 

For the next three weeks at Christ Church Walkley we’ll be looking together at how we help one another to grow into the kind of people Paul describes. We’ll make Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church our prayer. Each week I’ll try and share some of my reflections on what we’ve been discussing and learning here on this blog.

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Easter Books - a tradition and some recommendations

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Annie Juckes, a member of Christ Church Walkley, tells us about an Easter family tradition and shares some book recommendations... 

As children, we grew up around lots of American missionaries and so our parents ended up adopting some of their traditions. One of those was Easter baskets (little baskets filled with Easter eggs and chocolate) but they always included an 'Easter book' or voucher for an Easter book. The books didn't have to relate specifically to Easter but were usually Christian books, either that we wanted or that they wanted us to read. Now married, I always buy my husband an 'Easter book' and he does the same for me. Below are some of the books I've enjoyed over the last year or so. I'm afraid because of the sorts of books I like to read, these are all aimed at women, but they contain wonderful truths applicable to men and women alike!

None Like Him by Jen Wilkin - a short and easy-to-read book exploring 10 ways God is different to us, and why that's a good thing. 

Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin - (can you tell I'm a bit of a Jen Wilkin super-fan?!) I could hark on about this book all day because it totally revolutionised the way I think about bible study and I believe it is well worth a read by both men and women (despite it's cheesy title). Prepare to be challenged and stretched and made to feel a little inadequate.

The Ministry of a Messy House by Amanda Robbie - I didn't want to read this which is why I knew I had to. Amanda uncovers how it's God's grace that matters, not our own flawless performance or impressive presentation and that if we are serving God and pleasing him, it's okay for it not to be perfect in our, or in the world's eyes. Hard lessons to learn for a perfectionist like me.

Women & God by Kathleen Nielson - to be honest, I have only just started this book (I'm on chapter 2!) but I have been recommended it by various women I trust and admire. It looks at the emotive subject of what the Bible really says about women, discussing whether the Bible is sexist and how to see what God says on the subject of men and women as not only true, but beautiful and enjoyable too. 

Some of these books, and several more can be found on our Online Bookstore.

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Tumbling Sky

Alyssa Fanthome, a member of Christ Church Walkley tells us about the book she's been reading through Lent here - 

For the past few years I have read a book, together with some friends, in the run up to Christmas (Advent) and the run up to Easter (Lent).  This Lent we are reading Tumbling Sky together.  It’s a devotional book on the Psalms for “Weary Souls.”  We read the devotional each day and then send each other messages about what we have taken from the reading and our prayer for the day.  We chose The Tumbling Sky book as we thought it would be interesting to study the Psalms together and because it had short daily readings which we thought were manageable for us to look at each day.  

I have found it encouraging to do this every day in the run up to both Christmas and Easter, as I prepare my heart and mind for these extremely special events in our church calendar.  As we share what we have taken from the passage it is encouraging to know what others are learning and how they are growing through the Word they have read.

As we have read the book together we have all been struck by how the Psalmists cry out to God from the depths of despair.  We have been reminded that we do not need to be “sorted” to come before our Lord, He hears our prayers when we cry out to Him in pain and sorrow.  We have also been encouraged in how we walk alongside those who are struggling, that we spend time listening to them and praying for them rather than trying to “fix” them or telling them they need “more faith” or to just “cheer up.”  It is helpful to remember that when we are struggling or suffering we are no less a Christian, these words of turmoil are in the Bible, God knows that we will find life hard and he’s given us words to use to cry out to Him. But He has also given us hope that our suffering will end.

The book has reminded us of how Jesus is with us in our suffering, He is the suffering servant who knows what it is like to be physically cut off from God through his death on the cross.  We are not forsaken by God, although sometimes we may feel like we have been. We have access to the Father through His Son because of the wonder of Easter, Christ’s death and His resurrection.

Fasting - what’s it all about?

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At the vision evening last November I said that we needed a ‘godly dissatisfaction’ during 2018. That is, as well as patiently persevering in the things God commands us to do and trusting his timing for fruit, we also need to press on, longing for growth and being willing for change to be costly. This ‘godly dissatisfaction’ and longing is related to the biblical practice of fasting.

Fasting is a physical hunger to match the sense of spiritual hunger we feel, or want to grow to feel more, for the coming and growth of God’s kingdom. Jesus says his disciples don’t fast because he is with them, but they will when he is taken away (Mark 2v18-21). It is body language designed to match the prayer ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Fasting is an enacted prayer.

Since some of us are fasting during Lent anyway, and others will be fasting during our week of prayer in March, we ought to look at what Jesus teaches us about this practice in Matthew 6v16-18.

Jesus says we mustn’t fast like the hypocrites (v16). That is we don’t make a big song and a dance about it, showing off by looking especially dishevelled in order to impress others at our discipline or commitment. Rather we must do the opposite, and carry on basic personal care (v17). This is because we aren’t to fast for the reward of others but for the reward of our heavenly Father. Not that we are manipulating God or earning God-points by our fasting, but because it is a God-given way of pressing on in the race of the christian life to take hold of all that God has given us in Christ. Our gracious Father promises to respond rewardingly to fasting.

Please note, there are practical and sensible things to make sure you do when fasting (such as drinking plenty, and being careful about how long you fast for). Also, if you have medical or personal reason which makes fasting unwise (such as a historical or current struggle with an eating disorder), please don’t. There are other ways to apply the same principle, by fasting from something else, something other than food.

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Renewing Your Mind - Part 2

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Following on from the blogpost last week on The Bible Project and continuing the theme of Renewing Your Mind (Romans 12:1-2), this week's blogpost discusses podcasts. All podcasts are available on the iTunes Podcast app and via Google. 

DISCLAIMER: The podcasts in this list are all listened to by members of the CCW church family. Mentioning them, however, doesn’t amount to an endorsement of everything you’ll hear and they must be listened to with discernment. Almost by definition, given their nature (discussion), there’ll be a variety of views expressed on a variety of topics, and controversial and thought-provoking discussion is part of what the format offers. 

Podcasts for everybody on various topics - theology/culture/Christian living/preaching/ministry. 

Cooper & Cary Have Words

Two brits ‘talk about culture, theology, the arts, the church, books and sometimes the weather, well, they are British…’ James Cary is a sitcom writer who has worked for the BBC.  

Mere Fidelity

 A transatlantic conversation about church and culture to feed your inner theology nerd.

Mortification of Spin

'A casual conversation about things that count.' A podcast hosted by Carl Trueman, Todd Pruitt and Aimee Byrd on 'the challenges the church faces and what counts in the Christian life.' 

Speak Life

A podcast by Glen Scrivener and Andy Brinkley who discuss a different aspect of evangelism in depth on each podcast. Also features interviews with inspiring evangelists. 

The Gospel Coalition

A podcast that 'features lectures and workshops from our conferences as well as timely interviews and round table discussions on applying the gospel to the issues of our day.'

Timothy Keller Sermons Podcast

A podcast of Timothy Keller’s sermons. 

UP: The Union Podcast

A podcast of the UK-based theological seminary. ‘Theology for everyone, for life.’ They host interviews, discuss specific topics, talk book reviews etc. 

Podcasts specifically for women - (you will need an American-ism filter in place occasionally...)

Flower Mound Women's Bible Study

A weekly bible study podcast by Jen Wilkin. The studies relate to workbooks which you can download from the site but you can also listen to them without needing the workbook in front of you.

Mom Struggling Well

A podcast by an American stay-at-home mum who has a friend on each episode to discuss their story. They cover topics such as 'infertility, adoption, the pitfalls of comparison, living overseas and days spent crying on the floor.' A podcast for mums but helpful for women who aren't mums, too. 

Sheologians

A blog and podcasts by two American women who discuss anything and everything through the lens of a Christian worldview. Podcast titles include 'You Already Love Yourself Too Much (Self-Esteem is a Lie)' and 'So You're a Female. Now What?'

Thankful Homemaker

An American wife/mother/mother-in-law/grandmother talking about how 'the gospel impacts every area of our lives as Christian women.'

Truth's Table

A podcast hosted by three black American Christian women who call themselves 'midwives of culture for grace and truth.' 

What Have You

Two American sisters get together for a coffee date in a car every week to chat about whatever comes to mind.

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Renewing Your Mind - Part 1

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Resources for Renewing your Mind

We recently returned to our ongoing series in Romans to hear these words from the Apostle Paul:

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.
— Romans 12v2

This is the first in a series of blog posts suggesting some resources which might help us all know God's ongoing work of renewing our minds by his word & Spirit in our daily lives. That is about more than our bible reading but it certainly involves it, and the resource in this post is designed to help with that.

The Bible Project is a crowd-funded non-profit organisation dedicated to making high quality animations to aid people in their reading and study of the bible. For example:

  • They have videos giving an outline and overview of every bible book of the bible. You can see their videos on Romans here for example. 
  • There is a growing number of videos on major bible themes, such as this one on the Image of God.
  • There are some series exploring the bible in-depth by looking at particular types of book or common words, or like this series on how to read the bible

There is even a way to link their videos with a daily reading plan (scroll down the home page for details).

Check back next week for a blogpost on recommended podcasts...

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Lamentations

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The LORD is good to those who wait for him, 
to the soul who seeks him. 
It is good that one should wait quietly 
for the salvation of the LORD.
— Lamentations 3v25-26

For the next few weeks we will be reading through Lamentations at our Sunday gatherings. There is tremendous benefit in reading the bible together and doing so in public.  Even when there's no further comment, study or preaching of a passage, there is tremendous benefit in reading the scriptures together. The scriptures themselves encourage such public reading (1Tim 4v13) and promise blessing when it is done (Revelation 1v3, Psalm 1v1-2). 

But why are we reading the book of Lamentations in particular? Here are a couple of the (many) reasons:  

It's an unfamiliar book, but we still need it

Even if you have been a Christian for a long period of time, chances are you haven't heard much preaching on Lamentations, or studied it in a small group or one-to-one. Likewise, most of us will read more frequently from the gospels, Psalms, epistles and narrative books of the bible than Lamentations. But, as with all scripture, Lamentations is inspired by the Spirit of God (2Peter 1v21) for our salvation through knowing Christ (2Tim 3v15) and our encouragement in living as the people of God (Romans 15v4). It is part of the richness of God's message to us and his world. If we neglect it, we miss out. One particular aspect of this is...

It expresses things we don't often express, but we still need to grapple with

The clue is in the title of the book: Lamentations is a series of laments. It is written in the aftermath of the devastation of Jerusalem and the Temple of God by the Babylonian Empire in 587BC, confirming and deepening Israel's exile. This was an event of seismic proportions, one which threw the Israelites into turmoil - a spiritual dislocation to match the political and geographical upheaval they had been through. Although there are many differences with our own lives, there are important similarities. We too live in a world of tragedy and suffering, we too live in a world where God's people often fail, we too live waiting and longing for our true home in God's restored and renew creation. 

And yet, we are not very good at expressing our pain or hearing the pain of others expressed. We do not often pray or sing 'in the minor key.' We ignore, or distract ourselves from the painful reality of living in a world under the judgment of God. We have much to learn from Lamentation's graphic descriptions of Jerusalem's devastation, its confessions of sin and expressions of hope the far side of judgment.

For a helpful video about Lamentations see here.

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Small Groups - Reaching out

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This is the fourth post in a mini-series looking at the purpose of our Small Groups here at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here, second here and third here.

I’ve often found that evangelism gets tagged on to small group life rather than being a focus of what we’re doing together. When time is short, and life is hard, evangelism tends to drop off most small groups radars. I wonder whether this sometimes reflects our lives individually, where our focus is more easily directed to growing as a Christian and being in the safety of church family. When we read 1 Peter though we get a different perspective on evangelism in our life together:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
— 1 Peter 2:9–12, ESV

In this passage we’re described in two ways, the first is obviously positive, that we are now God’s chosen people. But see the reason Peter gives for why God has made us into his people, that we would proclaim God’s goodness. We are made to be God’s people for the purpose of proclaiming God’s excellencies – glorifying him. This view moves evangelism from an additional component of our lives to the very centre. Notice that it’s also something we say, we proclaim it, our evangelism has to involve an element of speaking about God to others.  As small groups proclaiming the gospel is fundamental to who we now are. Whether that happens together or by supporting one another in prayer as we do it individually, proclaiming the gospel is part of who we’ve been made to be.

The second way we’re described is as sojourners and exiles. We’re sojourners and exiles in this world because we’re now a new people with a new home – we belong somewhere else. But that brings its own challenges, we live as Christians in a world with different values and morals and we’re constantly being called to conform. Obedience to God, living as his people, can be immensely challenging in this world, but Peter sees it as a means by which people will come to glorify God when Christ returns. Our evangelism involves the way we live in our workplaces, families and community. Proclamation of the gospel and living a godly life amongst unbelievers are inseparable and fundamental to what it is to be one of God’s people. If our small groups are going to places where we reach out from we’ve got to be supporting and encouraging one another to be living as exiles and reminding each other that we are a people who have received mercy so that we can tell others about our God.

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Small Groups - Growing together

This is the third post in a mini-series looking at the purpose of our Small Groups here at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here, and second here.

Last week’s post saw how one way of avoiding Small Groups becoming inward-focussed and self-seeking was for them to be continually looking outward to God, seeking to bring him glory. In practice, part of that involves growing together in Christian maturity, so our lives and speech are increasingly glorifying to God. Take a look at Ephesians 4:25-32:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
— Ephesians 4:25-32, ESV

This follows on from Paul telling those he was writing to that by knowing Jesus they have been fundamentally changed, and they should be growing in their Christlikeness. And here Paul gets very specific about what that growth looks like. I want to highlight just two aspects of what hes says in the passage quoted above.

Firstly, notice the emphasis on what we say. We are to speak the truth, to build one another up with our words, to avoid slander and falsehood. The reference to not grieving the Holy Spirit probably fits here too, most likely referring to Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness (See Exodus 15 and Isaiah 63).  Our words matter more than we might think. It’s not just that dishonesty, corrupting and untimely words are wrong and sinful, but they damage our Christian brothers and sisters and grieve the Holy Spirit. The call is to have both the right content to our speech and the right manner of saying it. Rebuking someone harshly may be honest, but is unlikely to give grace to them or to build them up. Simply being ‘nice’ and being unwilling to address areas of sin with one another rapidly becomes dishonest. Neither help us to grow together in Christlikeness.

Secondly, notice that it all stems from God’s forgiveness of us. We treat one another in the same way that God has treated us. If we are to speak openly and honestly with one another we will inevitably touch nerves and sensitive areas. We will all make mistakes. We will likely waver between speaking falsely and speaking insensitively. So we must be willing to forgive one another when we get it wrong, to not respond with bitterness, anger and slander, but with honesty, kindness and humility. If we are to grow together in Christlikeness then our attitude towards each other must, at root, reflect God’s attitude to us. He has treated us on the basis of forgiveness and mercy, so we must treat one another in the same way – even when that means absorbing the cost and pain of someone else’s sin towards us.

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Small Groups - Curved in or curved out?

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This is the second in a mini-series of posts looking at the purpose of our small groups at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here.

Sometimes the fear with small groups is that they become curved in on themselves, self-centred, self-seeking and exclusive. The concern is legitimate, any small group of people meeting regularly in any context can become this way. But it doesn’t have to be what happens with small groups, and if they’re fulfilling their bigger purpose of helping us grow in Christian maturity, they won’t.

Often the answer to groups becoming curved in on themselves is to encourage them to look outside of themselves, and focus on those they’re trying to reach. There’s good wisdom in this, and the final post in the series will look at that. However, I want to suggest a more fundamental place we need to look outside of ourselves, to God, and his glory. 

Our growth in maturity isn’t primarily to serve ourselves, but to bring God glory. Ephesians 3:14-21 talks this way, some excerpts are below:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and an earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being … that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen
— Ephesians 3:14-21, ESV

How do we grow in maturity, how are we strengthened? Out of the riches of God’s glory, by God working in us. Our growth in maturity is rooted in God’s work, not ours, therefore he deserves the recognition and praise for it. And that’s where Paul goes at the end, his prayer is ultimately that through our growth God would be glorified. 

I wonder if that’s our desire as we sit together reading the bible, as we pray, as we counsel one another? Is it our hope that God’s glory would be seen through us and in us? That our transformation would be a testament to the Spirit's work in our lives?

Small groups are places where the Spirit should be at work through God’s word and through his people. They should be places where we see God’s glory. 

One way small groups avoid becoming curved in on themselves is when they are looking outward to God; when they are seeking and praying for God to be glorified through them. It’s worth asking ourselves why we want to grow in knowledge, why we want to overcome our temptations, why we want to work through our sin and suffering? Is it for our glory, so we look better, fit in more, are more esteemed, more glorified, or is it so that God is glorified? If it’s for us, then we’ll likely tend towards being curved in on ourselves. If it’s for God’s glory then we’ll tend to increasingly be looking away from ourselves – to God, and in the end to others too. 

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Small Groups - the BIG picture

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New Year, New Small Groups

Since we started Christ Church Walkley, Small Groups have been a significant part of our life together. They’ve been vehicles for serving on a Sunday, evangelism, pastoral care and discipleship amongst other things. There’s something to be said for keeping groups running for an extended period; the trust, openness and depth of prayer that comes from reading the Bible and praying together can’t easily be shortcut. That said, after five years we felt it was time to refresh and relaunch the groups, to give them a new lease of life. Inevitably that begs the question of what are our small groups meeting for, what’s the purpose of them, what are they trying to achieve? Small groups have become the ‘done thing’ in many churches, but often there is a lack of clarity of what their purpose is. Are they bible study groups? Prayer groups? Friendship/support groups? Small churches? A bit of everything?

Over a small series of four posts I want to explore some of the key things that I think should make up the purpose of our Small Groups, and might be helpful to others elsewhere.

The Big Picture

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
— Ephesians 4:15-16, ESV

Whilst not about small groups directly, there isn’t really a biblical conception of small groups in the way we have them, I think these verses help us see the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to 'grow up’ and make ‘the body grow.’ In one sense it’s that straightforward, small groups are there to make us grow up together into Christ, to be more like him. Here I just want to point out three things from this passage that show us a little bit about how that happens. 

Firstly, it’s something we do together, the passage talks about us all growing up together as one body. Christian maturity and Christian growth happens together. It requires the interactions with one another, to work together, to serve one another, to build one another up. It’s not a solo enterprise. Trying to grow up into Christ on our own, by choice, is a sign of Christian immaturity.

Secondly, notice that a significant mechanism for growth is speaking, and a particular kind of speech. We are to speak ‘the truth’ to one another - the gospel truth. Growth doesn’t come from simply speaking honestly to one another, although we should be. But by speaking the gospel into one another’s lives day by day, week by week. Small groups should be refuge from the pressures of the world, to conform to other ways of thinking, to have a different Lord. Small Groups are where we remind one another of the truth of the gospel and our Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, we do all of this in the context of love. Notice how the passage starts telling us to 'speak the truth in love’ and finishes describing the body of Christ building itself up in love. Love for Jesus and for one another is the basis for our growth and the criterion for assessing our growth. small groups should be a context where our love for Jesus and one another can be shown in our speech and actions. And, if our small groups are working properly, we should be seeing an increase in our love for Jesus and one another over time.

Small groups are more than bible study groups, more than prayer groups, more than support groups. They should probably include elements of those, but they are all means by which we can speak the truth to one another in love so that we grow up!

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The Greatest Gift

Whether you love it or loathe it, Christmas is certainly hard to ignore.  There are parties and plays to attend, shopping and decorating to organise as well as all that food to eat and presents to receive. 

But amongst all the wrappings and trimmings the whisper of hope, joy and peace can be hard to hear, let along understand. 

In this short and readable book, Paul Williams "peels off the sellotape" and "rips open the paper" from the Christmas message.  You'll discover the greatest gift at the heart of Christmas and how is can transform your celebrations this year. 

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Celebrating Advent as a Family

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Paul Jones, a member of Christ Church Walkley, and an elder, explains how he and his family use an advent candle to prepare well for Christmas.

Advent is a great time of year. We are all looking forward to Christmas and all that it brings; decorating the house, time off, time with family, presents, pigs in blankets, carols, a nativity and maybe a decent movie.

With all that is going on then sometimes it is hard to focus on what we celebrate at Christmas. I wonder if we actually timed ourselves and recorded how much time we spend doing “Christmas stuff” how much of it would actually be Jesus related? Even writing that, I’m convicted myself.

Over the past few years, one of the things we have looked to do as a family is to use an Advent Candle to help us prepare for Christmas and get our focus onto Jesus. The one that we use lists 25 names that Jesus is given throughout the Bible, one for each day in December. We have found it a really simple way to talk about the importance of Jesus, Christmas and the Bible with the boys.

In previous years we have paired the names on the candle with verses in the Bible. So every day at tea time we light the candle and then read the verse. It has been a great way to teach the boys, and ourselves, that the story of Jesus doesn’t start in Bethlehem but runs throughout scripture.

This year we have taken a slightly different appraoch, as the boys are that little bit older we have this year decided to incorporate a little bit more “in-depth” teaching about each name. Explaining what it means and why it’s important that Jesus is...The Messiah (That was today’s). Then we’ve include this as part of our prayer before tea. Our tea time prayer is generally thanking God for our food and we also pray through the church family using the prayer diary. It has been really good to include praying for, and thanking God for all the Bible tells us that Jesus is.

We do find it harder to look forward to the second Advent, and the return of Christ, but hopefully we remember to include this in our conversations over tea!

Our hope and prayer as parents is that these times round the table would really help us and the boys to grasp the joy of the incarnation – and it’s a great way to count down to Christmas too!!

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Northern Women's Convention

Louise Miles, a member of Christ Church Walkley went to Bradford in October for the Northern Women's Convention and tells us about it here...

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I’m not sure what I was hoping to get out of the Northern Women’s Convention this year, it was quite a last minute choice to attend and maybe not really having had much time to think about it meant that I came to the convention with a more open mind than otherwise. I signed up for two sessions; one about Reading the Bible with Children and one called The Joy Set Before Us. If Im completely honest I was really interested on the morning seminar about Feminism and Christianity but I felt like I should attend the Reading the Bible with Children seminar as I’m not very good at that and I thought it was the most useful one for me. I chose the seminar about Joy because it sounded really positive and I’ve been struggling recently with getting bogged down in the negative things of life. 

As soon as we arrived it was encouraging to see Christian women from all over the place gathering together and really lovely to see some very welcome familiar faces, for a place I’ve never been before it felt strangely like coming home. Mags and I had Theo and Delilah in tow so we unloaded them and set about finding out where our seminars were. 

It was really great to attend the main gathering at first and be introduced to the speaker, a really interesting lady called Agnes Brough, who was so very different from what I was expecting when I saw her! She works mostly with youth and you could really tell from her style that that’s what she did. She was down to earth and matter of fact, very wise but very clear and between her Scottish accent and her delivery, she really reminded me of Susan Calman (this is intended as a compliment!) It was really fascinating to hear her talk about the experiences of her church The Tron in Scotland and the difficulties they have had finding a building after they were evicted from the building that they had occupied as a result of being unwilling to sanction gay clergy. It was really encouraging to see how God had a plan for their church and was with them all the way despite it seeming to be a great defeat which really challenged the way I think about our situation as a church family.

Agnes took us through the book of Malachi with the question “is it worth it?” challenging us to think about the cost of being Christians today, what that means for this in a variety of different situations. She talked us through the “complaints” that the people of Israel were levelling at their God in Malachi and how it is so relevant today. As if petulant children they demand of God “but how have you loved us?” And God is rightly angered. I was very challenged by this as I am fully aware for the many times my own attitude complains to God, whether it’s the giving up of time, money, comfort etc I am very quick myself to feel hard done by and forget the many good gifts I have been given.

The first seminar went really quickly and it was really encouraged to be surrounded by women who are all really committed to teaching the Bible to their children. One of the things I really came away with was one of the women said that it was important to “teach your children big truths that they can grow into”. I’m so often discouraged by the fact that there is so much I need to teach the boys that I don’t try or else I worry about how to teach them things that won’t merely be head knowledge but that will change their hearts. Listening to older and wiser Christian women talk about their own journeys was really interesting and encouraged me to keep going in the knowledge that it is ultimately Gods work.

The final seminar I went to was all about heaven and what we have to look forward to, the joy set before us towards which we race by Gods grace. When I was at uni I spent a lot of time thinking about heaven (whilst reading the theologically somewhat dubious Left Behind Series) but I haven’t really spent much time doing that since and it was really encouraging to spend some really quality time thinking about heaven. Agnes asked us how we would answer this question from a 7 year old “in heaven will I live with my mummy and daddy?” She explained that she answers this question with yes, not what I was expecting! She explained that at the moment on earth Christians are scattered about and when we meet in churches or at conferences we get a little taste of heaven as we are meeting then in “scattered gatherings” but in heaven we will be in “gathered gatherings” in our larger perfect family. I found this a really interesting idea which I’d like to learn and think more about. 

I’m always encouraged by large gatherings of my Christian family and I found myself thinking about how much I had enjoyed Renew South Yorkshire too, it’s so good to see the people you have missed and hear the word taught faithfully and to stand in big groups singing Gods praises is something I always find moving so among many things I have taken away from the NWC is that I am looking forward to the day when we are all singing Gods praises at that great “gathered gathering” in heaven when there will be no need for the words to be projected onto a screen as we will know them all by heart!

Click here to find out more about the Northern Women's Convention - if you want to listen to any of the talks or seminars, they are available here.

Christ Alone

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The fourth of our mini-series on the five ‘alones’ of the Reformation brings us to Christ Alone. The
world around us has changed significantly since the Reformation; the church, culture and the
political landscapes are all very different. Yet, the question of if how we can know God is still asked by lots of people at some point in their lives. One of the things that surprised me most when I started pastoring and caring for people coming to the end of their lives was how many wanted to try and make things right with God one way or another. This was people for many different faiths and of none, often asking the same kind of fundamental question. Our Anglican heritage, following on from the truths recovered in the Reformation, gives clear answers to their questions and concerns:

THE Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to  us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
— Article II, Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very man
WE Are Accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
— Article XI, Of The Justification Of Man

Notice at the end of Article II that Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death and burial served a purpose. It was to be a sacrifice, to bear the cost of our sins and rejection of God, so we can be reconciled to him again. Article XI adds something more, it talks about us being accounted righteous before God, only on the basis of Jesus’ merit. We can be right with God because through Jesus alone the
punishment for our sins and wrongs is paid for and then his righteousness is counted to us as ours. Jesus doesn’t just bring us back to a neutral position before God, dealing with our sins and then leaving us to our own righteousness. He clothes us in his righteousness, so when God looks at us he sees Jesus’ righteousness, not our own. In our culture there are myriad of ways we are told that we can come to and know God, we are surrounded by a multitude of religions offering ways to God, but the bible, reformers, and Articles of Religion teach that there is only one way to know God – through Jesus alone.

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Scripture Alone

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In this short series of posts we have been showing how our Anglican doctrinal heritage gives us a wonderful expression of the Christian faith as it was re-discovered during the reformation. 

If 'Faith Alone' was the issue at the heart of the reformation, 'Scripture Alone' was the foundational issue. Where did Luther and others get their re-discovery of the gospel from? A fresh study of Scripture. On what basis did they dare to challenge the powerful church authorities of their day, overturning the traditions that had built up in recent centuries? On the basis of what God had said in the Scriptures, which, they insisted, is the only final authority for Christian belief and practice. 

The 39 articles of the Church of England (essentially the 'doctrinal basis' for Anglicanism) explain this very clearly, even though the language now feels a little archaic. Consider this from part of article 6 for example:

VI. OF THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES FOR SALVATION

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. 

Just how this restrained the power of the Church is expressed very well in article 20:

XX. OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

Please note though, in line with what all the reformers believed, this isn't saying that teachers and leaders in the church have no authority whatsoever. It does meant that their authority is subject to the bible.  Likewise, the articles were not proposing that all of tradition be rejected out of hand. Often, much of what our brothers and sisters in the past have handed down to us is extremely helpful. For example, article 8 says this about some of the ancient creeds:

VIII. OF THE THREE CREEDS

The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.

Today we sometimes misinterpret 'Scripture Alone' to mean 'me and my bible on our own.' The Reformers would not have seen it that way. We benefit from the help of our Christian family in understanding the bible, both today and throughout history. But the Scriptures must rule supreme, and have the final say.

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By Grace Alone

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As we come to think about being saved by grace alone you’ll realise how closely tied it is to last week’s post on being saved by faith alone; the two are indivisibly tied together. That we are saved by grace alone has some significant implications for how sure we can be of our salvation and how we think of ourselves. Firstly, a quote from Martin Luther summarising a little bit of what the Reformers thought about grace alone, and then a second quote from Article X from the Book of Common Prayer.

If the Pope would concede that God alone by His grace through Christ justifies sinners, we would carry him in our arms, we would kiss his feet.
— Martin Luther, A Commentary of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will
— Article X, Book of Common Prayer

The quote from Martin Luther reveals how significant our justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) was for the reformers. Here he implies that it is one of the most significant things the separated them from the Roman Catholic church. The Article expands things a little more, notice they key ideas, that we can’t turn to God in faith by our own strength, nor can we do good works in our own power, it is God in his grace who must act and continues to act in our lives. The slightly strange phrase “without the grace of God by Christ preventing us” simply means without the God grace acting first, so that our will would be turned to him. The idea is that God must act in grace towards us before we can turn to him. This is the centre of the idea of justification by grace alone, that we are justified because God acts in grace before we have done, or desired to do, anything good in ourselves.

Why does this matter so much? 

There are two key areas where I think this really matters, our assurance of salvation and, how we think of ourselves. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 brings out both ideas:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
— (Eph 2:8–10, ESV)

It’s God’s unconditional grace, rooted in his love for his world, that has saved us. Paul explicitly says that it’s not of our works. The things we do, or don’t do, don’t contribute to our salvation, it’s something we have been freely given. Therefore, we don’t need to be seeking to judge our own lives or works to see whether they are good enough for God – because that’s not what God saves us based on. If we’re struggling with assurance that we’re one of God’s children we need to look back to God’s love for the world, so much that he gave up his Son, and remind ourselves that or salvation comes freely as a gift of grace, not based on what we’ve done. 

Secondly, notice that salvation by grace alone means that no-one has any grounds for boasting. Boasting points to yourself, it says “Look how good I am,” if our actions had some part in our salvation then we might find grounds for boasting in who we are or what we’ve done. But, as our salvation is based on God’s grace alone the only person we can point to and boast in is him. Salvation by grace alone is a great leveller, it puts us all as those who had nothing to offer God, but were saved by his grace anyway.

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By Faith Alone

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As a church we describe ourselves as both Reformed and Anglican. As we celebrate the reformation over the next few weeks we’re going to run a series of blog posts seeing how these two aspects of our doctrine relate to one another and why it matters for us today.

Let me begin with two quotes, the first from Martin Luther, the second from the 39 Articles of Religion:

Faith alone, when based upon the sure promises of God, must save us; as our text clearly explains [John 6:44-55] …And in the light of it all, they must become fools who have taught us other ways to become Godly.
— Martin Luther, On Faith, And Coming To Christ. 
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the homily of Justification.
— Article XI, The Book of Common Prayer

Salvation by faith alone underpins both the truths rediscovered in the Reformation and our Anglican doctrine. The emphasis is on the ‘aloneness’ of faith for justification, rather than it somehow being combined with what we do or deserve.

Practically, whilst there being nothing we can do to influence our salvation can be a difficult pill to swallow – we always like to feel we’ve contributed or earned what we get – as article XI says it’s actually a real comfort. If we are justified by faith alone then nothing we do can make God consider us righteous, but also nothing we do makes God consider us unrighteous either.

Salvation by faith also is full of comfort because it is based on Jesus’ righteousness rather than our own attempts at being righteous. And whereas our righteousness is always found wanting, Jesus’ righteousness is perfect, and by faith alone it is counted by God as our righteousness.

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