Not at the prayer meeting – presumed dead

Acts 2:42 tells us: “They devoted themselves to… the prayers”. What could that kind of devoted commitment to the prayers of the church look like for you? Here’s a lovely example of a Christian’s commitment to the prayer meeting, reported by Charles Spurgeon’s little brother, James Spurgeon:

There never was a prayer-meeting held without Mrs. W—— being present. Whether I was there or not, she was. Once, about six months ago, she was absent; but when I asked her where she had been, she said:
I came there, and put the books down, although I could not stop to the meeting.
She had come to the chapel, and reported herself, and then gone off to see someone who was ill. That was the only time I ever knew her to be away from a prayer-meeting until last Sunday evening, when I missed her again. I asked my deacons if they had seen her, or heard anything of her, and they said:
We do not know where she is, but she was not with us last Friday night, at the prayer-meeting.
I said that I was sure she was dead, for if she had been alive she would have been certain to have been at the prayer-meeting. Nobody questioned what I said. All felt with me that she would not have missed two consecutive prayer-meetings unless she had been dead, or too ill to leave her house. During the evening service one of the deacons went off to where she lived all by herself, and, not being able to make anybody hear, he obtained assistance, and broke into the house. There he found just what we expected; she was there, upon her knees, dead, in her little parlour, and she must have died in great suffering, and in the act of praying to God.
She was a remarkable character. She visited and gave away tracts in the worst street in Croydon, and she had a singularly happy way of getting hold of very wicked people, to whom she would tell the story of her own life, and say that she used to be just like them, but by the grace of God she had been converted, and that grace which had done so much for her could do the same for them.
There is a story told as an instance of the pranks that used to be played upon her. A young man thought that he would frighten her; so he dressed himself up as nearly like the devil as his imagination enabled him to do, and when she knocked at his door, he opened it, and called out:
I am the devil,
and began to shout at her. Without being at all alarmed, she quietly put on her glasses, and looked him up and down, and said:
You ain’t the devil, you are only one of his children.
I thought the old lady had the best of it that time. I asked her if she ever saw him again, and she replied:
Oh dear, no! He just put his head in, and went off.
We shall sorely miss her; our prayer-meetings will have a blank through Mrs. W——’s absence that we shall not easily make up. I hope some of you will be such constant attendants at the prayer-meeting that if you are absent twice we shall say of you:
I am sure our brother or sister must be dead,
although we do not want to have you departing from us so suddenly as did our good friend at Croydon.

(Taken from The Sword and Trowel: 1884 pages 89 – 90)

I know that London life is much busier for us today than it was in Victorian London. And I know we can’t do everything.  But I am convinced that the church prayer meeting is much more telling as to the real health of our church than what you see on Sundays. Luther says somewhere: “as it is the business of cobblers to make shoes, and tailors to make clothes, so it is the business of Christians to pray”.  Let’s encourage each other to come along, to share our needs, and spread them before our Father in heaven.

“They devoted themselves to… the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

 

Which “news” matters more: Ariana Grande or the evangelical church?

If you open up the BBC website, or look at the news in your Facebook feeds, most of the headlines you see tell you about trivia, like “Five people called the Met Police 8,655 times”, “How do you justify selling a £2 T-shirt?”, and “Athlete bitter over mesh that almost ended career”. If we let the BBC, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, or Al-Jazeera tell us what matters in the world, we’ll quickly discover the church of Christ doesn’t make the cut. I remember when the Guardian website removed the “religion” tab from their homepage. On the BBC website, you can find stories grouped around Politics, Business, Health, Tech, Science, Family & Education, Entertainment & Arts, but nothing on religion! Religion has become invisible.

This isn’t how the Bible wants us to look at the world. As Brad Bitner helpfully reminded us on Sunday, from Psalm 87, the city that matters more than any other isn’t London, New York, or Tokyo, but the city of Zion (a picture of Christ’s church). That city will last forever. Christ’s church should interest us more than anything else.

There’s a great moment in the book of Nehemiah, when Nehemiah is far away in the capital of Persia and meets some Jews. He writes in 1.2: “I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile”. That’s the news Nehemiah really wanted to know. The news he really wanted to hear was what was happening in Zion. That’s what the Bible wants to teach us. We should care much more about how the evangelical church is doing in England or any other part of the world than the latest irrelevance about Ariana Grande!

Here are some links that give helpful news and comment from a Christian perspective with a high view of the Bible. Why not set one of them as your homepage?

Evangelicals Now – a monthly newspaper, edited by John Benton, filling you in on things happening in the British church scene and abroad.

Evangelical Times – another monthly newspaper, edited by Roger Faye, a minister up in Yorkshire.

Affinity – Affinity is a grouping of conservative evangelical churches that formed under the influence of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It represented the desire for church unity between Christians rooted in a shared commitment to the gospel and God’s word (in contrast to the ecumenical movement, which promoted unity at the expense of truth).

 

Noah gets baptized

On Sunday afternoon, we looked at Genesis 7, which tells us: “The flood is coming! Enter the ark!”. We saw that Noah’s flood is a picture of God’s coming judgment and of Jesus Christ as the only way of escape. Jesus’ salvation takes the form of an ark – an uncomfortable, smelly ark – otherwise known as the church!

I had to leave this out of my sermon because of time. But in 1 Peter 3:20-21, the apostle Peter connects the waters of the flood with the waters of baptism:

“in [the ark]… a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.  Baptism… corresponds to this”

That means we can say: Noah was the first person to be baptised in the Bible.

This is interesting for at least 2 reasons:

i) it’s a great way to think about our own baptisms. Just as Noah was safe from God’s judgment waters in the ark, my baptism is here to tell me I’m safe from God’s judgment waters thanks to Christ. We need to use our baptisms more and put them to work. We’re not Roman Catholics who think baptism works magically, but nor are our baptisms meant to be a forgettable moment in our history. Our baptisms are designed to help us face the coming flood with a sense of security and confidence in Christ. My baptism points me to Christ and tells me: “you’re in the ark; you’re safe”.

ii) the first baptism in the Bible was a household baptism. The text flags this up: “Go into the ark, you and all our household” (Gen 7:1). Noah didn’t get baptised by himself. His whole family got baptised at the same time. Noah and his wife, his 3 sons and their wives. Now, clearly, his family didn’t include any infants; they were all married, after all. But it’s still striking, isn’t it? In Acts, Lydia believes and we’re told “she was baptized, and her household as well” (16:15). When the Philippian jailor believes “he was baptized at once, he and all his family (16:33). From the earliest days, God’s taught his people to raise their children inside, not outside, the covenant. That’s why we baptise the children of believers at All Nations Church Ilford. It’s not just an empty gesture, but a claiming of God’s promise to us and our children.

If you’d like to think more about bringing up our children in faith not fear, here’s a great article by a minister in Scotland called William Still.

The event of Noah’s ark and the flood is a very sobering, clarifying story. Our baptisms are designed to slot us into that story and to love Christ and his ark even more.

 

What’s the opposite of holy?

Q. What’s the opposite of light?

A. Darkness.

Q. What’s the opposite of male?

A. Female.

Q. What’s the opposite of Jew?

A. Gentile.

Q. What’s the opposite of holy?

A….

Go on. What do you say?

I expect the answer most of us instinctively give is “sinful”. That’s not a bad answer, but if that’s all we think, we’ll probably get ourselves into trouble. For example, that answer runs into trouble with the Sabbath. When God says: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Ex 20:8), God isn’t saying your Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are sinful. Or when Paul calls them the “holy Scriptures” (2 Tim 3:15) he’s not saying all the other literature on your bookshelves is sinful. In both these uses of the word “holy”, the opposite isn’t “sin”, but “common”. The “holy” is something which has a special connection to God, in a way that the common doesn’t. The common is still good. We can still glorify God in the common things, but the holy things are sacred; they have a special quality, and a special status. The Sabbath day is holy time. The Bible is holy text.

Leviticus 10:10 told the priests: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common”.

But this is a distinction which many Christians today have trouble with and could do with re-learning. We can think the “holy” is just an old covenant idea that has been cancelled by Christ. But this distinction pre-dates sin. In man’s innocence, there was a difference between the Sabbath and other days of the week, between the Garden of Eden and the rest of the earth, between the two trees in the midst of the Garden and all the other trees.  In God’s world, some things are common and other things are holy. Not everything is the same. So, it’s right when we come to church to realise something holy is going on. We should treat it differently to everything else in our week. We shouldn’t treat “the table of the Lord” (1 Cor 10:21) in the same way as our table (1 Cor 11:34). But that doesn’t mean our taxi-driving, or our cleaning, or parenting, or music-making are not areas of service to God. Realising that the opposite of holy isn’t sin, but the common, will help us glorify God in both areas of our lives, without confusing them.

 

 

The Prayer Meeting

A striking feature of the church in Acts is the disciples’ commitment to praying together:

Acts 1:12-14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”.

Acts 2:42, “they devote themselves to … the prayers”.

Acts 4:23-31, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken”.

Acts 6:4, the apostles say: “we will devote ourselves to prayer”.

Acts 12:5, “earnest prayer for [Peter] was made to God by the church”.

Acts 20:36-38,  “when [Paul] had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all”.

Every Wednesday, we meet to pray and cry out to God together as a church. One thing that can stop us joining in and taking part is that we don’t think prayer has any power. I doubt any of us would come right out and say that; as soon as you say it, you see how sinful a thing it is to think, but we can think it. That’s why hearing examples of answered prayer can be helpful. The book of Acts itself clearly gives us some specific examples. But here’s a great story from the 19th century revival in New York, told by Samuel Prime, in his book “the Power of Prayer”. It’s a great reminder to keep praying for God to save specific people we know:

“I must tell you one thing in regard to the power of prayer. I believe much in prayer for particular cases and particular individuals. I have seen it to result in the salvation of souls in many cases during the last winter. But the case I wish to speak of is the following:

A brother pastor, who laboured near me, was on his death-bed. I knew him well – knew all about his habits of prayer. When he was dying, some one of his brother ministers asked him how he felt in view of his departure. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘I feel happy, and assured of my salvation, as a poor, lost sinner saved through a Saviour’s precious, atoning blood.’ But still there seemed to be something weighing upon his mind. So one of us inquired, ‘My dear brother, is there any thing that is now a cause of anxiety to you?

The dying minister put his hand under his pillow, and drew out a piece of paper, on which were written twenty-five names of men, unconverted, leading men in his parish, and, with tears in his eyes, he said, “Yes, there is one cause of anxiety, and here it is: it is the salvation of these twenty-five men. I have prayed much for these twenty-five men, name by name. If I could know that these men would be converted, I could then say, ‘Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’” This was the great burden upon his heart, and so he died.

At a recent meeting of our ecclesiastical body, when the conversation on the state of religion was being held, and the successor of that departed minister was giving in his account, I asked the moderator if I might, through him, ask the brother about those twenty-five men, for we all knew about the case. The clergyman heard my inquiry, and for some time was unable to speak. Then, with the tears flowing down his cheeks, he said, ‘Brethren, every one of those twenty-five men has been converted.’ We believe they were converted in answer to our deceased brother’s desires and prayers – perhaps in answer to that burden of desire which he had for their conversion in the dying hour. Long had he borne them on his heart as the burden of prayer, and all of them, we think, will be stars in his crown of rejoicing in the great day”.

(HT: darbygrayblogspot.com)

Why is there love in the world?

Why does the widower miss his wife so badly? Why does the mum love her children? Why does the infant desperately want his mum more than anything? Why do you love that particular food, cooked in that particular way? Why does that piece of music give you that spine-tingly feeling? Why do you feel elation at the winning wicket or goal? Why does the fireman run into the burning building to rescue the little girl? Why will a soldier give his life to rescue a comrade?

Why is there such a thing as love in the world? I wonder what answer you’d give.

It’s a question which the atheist has to explain away. “Love is just a chemical process in the brain, that has evolutionary advantages”; “Love’s an illusion”. “Our experience of love makes it look more significant than it really is”. But as Christians we can give a much better answer than that. Here is how the puritan John Owen answered that question, which if you were there on Sunday you’ve already heard (I’ve updated the language slightly):

“the only reason why there is such a thing as love in the world among creatures… was that it might shadow and represent the indescribable, eternal love that the Father had for the Son, and the Son for the Father, by the Spirit” (John Owen vol. 9, 613).

Put that in your pipe and smoke it! I’m not sure it’s possible to come up with a better answer than that. That answer means that we haven’t over-estimated how significant our experience of love really is; we’ve underestimated its significance. Our highest, most powerful experiences of love are just the weakest scent, the most diluted versions of the reality of God the Father’s love for the Son.

And just to remind you what we saw on Sunday: John 1:12 invites you and me into the circle of that love! “To all who did receive [Jesus]… who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”.

Knowing the Times

 The children of Isacchar “had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chr 12:32). “Understanding of the times” is a really good thing to pray for. While we don’t want to be “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14), and just jump on trends around us, we do want to have our eyes open to our specific situation. If you want to get your head around religion in modern Britain, here’s a summary of six interesting factors to bear in mind taken from this book:

1. the role of churches in shaping British culture.  Britain has been hugely influenced by Christianity for a very long time and it still is. E.g. Our view of the week, and public holidays are shaped by Christianity. Wherever you look, church buildings are still scattered across the land and form part of the landscape.

2. these churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to influence – let alone discipline – the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population. So, the reaction to the death of Princess of Diana still involved churches. Churches housed the books of condolences and facilities for lighting candles. It was the Church of England that took responsibility for the funeral. In crises, people do still look to the church and expect her to act in certain ways, even if they don’t regularly take part themselves.

3. active churches increasingly operate on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty. Religion is less something passed on from one generation to the next and is more based on the individual choice of the consumer. In the 21st century, the two groups of churches attracting most active participants are charismatic evangelical churches and cathedral-type churches in city-centres. Though both are offering quite different experiences, what they have in common is a noticeable experiential element.

4. the arrival into Britain of groups of people from many different parts of the world, and with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host society. After World War 2, there was an influx of immigration from the Indian subcontinent, West Africa, and the Caribbean, because Britain needed workers. These migrants included Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as diverse kinds of Christians. In the 2000s, there was an influx of eastern European workers. Compared to France, which has emphasised the need for migrants to have primary allegiance to France rather than their religion, Britain has been more relaxed. But new arrivals bring new ways of being religious, and challenge the status quo about the role of religion in public life.

5. the reaction of Britain’s secular elites to the increasing relevance of religion in public as well as private life. Sharp secular voices have emerged, arguing for an alternative to religion. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are two obvious examples. Their books have sold in the millions.

6. a growing realization that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe (including Britain) should be considered “exceptional” in global terms. Religion is vibrant in America. Christianity is growing fast in the global south (especially in Pentecostal forms); large parts of the world are dominated by non-Christian faiths. In many places religion, and religious difference, mixed with politics leads to violence. It’s a mistake to think that what’s happening in Europe is “typical”.

These 6 things would be good to pray about as we ask Jesus Christ to build his church in 21st century Britain.

Moving to London?

“Come over to … [Ilford!] and help us” (Acts 16:9).

Are you moving to London for work? Are you looking to buy in London but wonder how you can afford it with the property prices? Consider buying in Ilford for the sake of the gospel!  Recent data shows that Newbury Park and Redbridge are the most affordable stations to live close to in London.  They are both local to us at All Nations Church Ilford. More information here

If you want a nice house, this may not be the best place. If you want a big garden, Ilford may not be your top choice. If you want to hang out with lots of people like you, it’s probably not for you. If you want to play it safe, look elsewhere. If your goal is comfort and convenience, try south west London! But if you want to bring the good news of Jesus to a hard place, where there are lots of Muslims, and complete freedom to speak, then why not think and pray about coming to help us at All Nations Church Ilford.

We’ve been going for two and a half years, and have lots to thank God for, but we’re still praying for God to send us more keen Christians, who want to get stuck in to the unglamorous but glorious life of Christ’s church.

Back to Basics

On Sunday morning we looked at the “darkness” in John 1:5 and saw how big a problem our sin is. But God’s grace is bigger than our sin. This question from the Heidelberg Catechism is a brilliant statement, because it doesn’t fudge or belittle my ongoing sin, but shows how Jesus Christ brings me real peace with God. I remember reading this question and answer on a Sunday afternoon over 10 years ago and being bowled over by it. Time and again we need to go back to basics.

Q.60. How are you right with God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.

Even though my conscience accuses me

of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments

and of never having kept any of them,

and even though I am still inclined toward all evil,

nevertheless,

without my deserving it at all,

out of sheer grace,

God grants and credits to me

the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,

as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,

as if I had been as perfectly obedient

as Christ was obedient for me.

All I need to do

is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

Can the follower of any other religion say anything remotely like this?! Praise God for the gospel!

Here are the proof texts: Rom 3:21-28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Phil 3:8-11; Rom 3:9-10; Rom 7:23; Titus 3:4-5; Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8; Rom 4:3-5; Gen 15:6; 2 Cor 5:17-19; 1 John 2:1-2; Rom 4:24-25; 2 Cor 5:21; John 3:18; Acts 16:30-31.

You can find more of the Heidelberg Catechism here

What’s the speed of our obedience?

“I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments” Psalm 116:60.

When you’re driving your car, there are two pedals that affect your speed – the brake and the accelerator. The brakes slow you down and the accelerator speeds you up. These two pedals can help us appreciate what the Psalmist says in this verse.

When it comes to obeying God’s commands, sometimes we can put our foot on the brakes. We want to slow things down. “Hang on! I know the Bible says stuff about the Sabbath, or about not stealing, or about forgiving others, or about the importance of prayer, but it can’t be that straight-forward”. So, we delay our obedience. We come up with excuses. We put it off and drag our feet. But the psalmist says: “I … do not delay to keep your commandments”. He won’t touch the brake pedal when it comes to obeying God’s commandments.

But that’s not all. Not only does the psalmist not want to slow down his obedience; he’s not happy to coast along either and keep his speed at 30 mph. “I hasten… to keep your commandments” he says. When he hears a commandment, he doesn’t just avoid slowing down his obedience; he deliberately speeds it up. He puts his foot on the accelerator. He wants to get from 30 to 70 mph as quickly as possible. Isn’t that a beautiful idea? God’s commandments are so good, that when he hears them, he wants to align his life with them as quickly as he can.

This is how Jesus talked when he was on earth; he was quick to obey his heavenly Father: “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments”. And this is how Jesus leads Christians to talk too.

So, a good question to ask ourselves is: what’s the speed of our obedience? Are we putting the brakes on? Or maybe we’re just driving on spiritual cruise-control. Or are we putting our foot down fully on the throttle? When I come to church, which attitude do I have? Which pedal have I got my foot on? The brake or the accelerator? Wouldn’t it be great if we as a congregation were determined not to delay, but to hasten to keep the commandments of God as we discover them in Scripture? Let’s pray that as we turn up on Sundays, we’re like a bunch of boy-racers, revving their engines at the traffic lights, eager to obey God.