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EFAC Australia

Essentials

ChaseKuhnChase R. Kuhn lectures in theology and ethics at Moore College. This article was first published online by The Gospel Coalition Australia and is republished with their permission and that of Dr. Kuhn.

The current situation with COVID-19 has raised many questions, and amongst them are important theological questions about what we believe the church is, and whether the church continues when we are commanded not to ‘gather’. Throughout the Bible the people of God are depicted as the people called into a covenant relationship with God. One of the key identifiers of this people is the fact that they meet together with one another, in the presence of God, to hear from God’s word. This is what the Bible teaches is the ‘church’: the gathering of God’s people. God called the Israelites to be his people, and he assembled them (gathered them) together in his presence to receive his word (Deut 4:10). It was at this assembly, in the first instance, that God established his covenant with the people (Ex 19:4-6). Likewise, new covenant believers are charged to continue meeting (Heb 10:23-25). Historically, the distinctive marks of the church are the word preached and the sacraments duly administered—these sacraments being signs of the new covenant in Christ. But if gathering together is something so crucial for the people of God, what are we to do—and believe—in times such as these, where meeting together physically is not possible? I want to consider four abiding theological truths about the church, before turning to four practical implications for our lives today.

1. OUR IDENTITY IS PRIMARILY IN CHRIST

It is Christ who establishes us as a people. This statement is important because of its ordering. Our identity as the church is to be a collection of God’s people, brought together because of our union with Christ. This union is what is celebrated in the sacraments. But the union is not dissolved because of our inability to gather. Rather, we gather because of a union that transcends time and space. This should be deeply reassuring to Christians: your identity isn’t fundamentally as a church member, but as a person united to Jesus. Right now—in this very moment—you are part of the people of God. And it is precisely because you are one of God’s people by faith—not insignificantly, a faith given to you by the Spirit (Gal. 4:6)—that you meet with other Christians regularly.

2. OUR LIFE IS DEFINED BY THE WORD

The definitive marker of our life together is hearing God’s word—the word that saves us and tells us who we are by the grace and mercy of God. In Scripture, God communicates rich truth about who he is, the way he has made for us to relate to him, and what it means to live in that relationship. The word of God transcends the inestimable chasm between God’s transcendent, infinite holiness and our fallenness and finitude.

3. CHRIST’S PROMISED PRESENCE

God promises his presence amongst us when we gather together. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus made it clear that he is with believers whenever two or more are gathered. This is intended to reassure us of Christ’s abiding presence with us corporately, even in the tiniest gathering. Furthermore, the apostle John tells us that though no one has ever seen God, he is manifested to us in our love for one another in the Spirit (1 John 4:12-13). This means that life-together presents us with more than may initially meet the eye: God’s presence is known through the presence of others, as we demonstrate mutual love for one another.

4. MUTUAL DEPENDENCE

Our Christian growth and maturity depends upon our relationships with others. We don’t simply grow through receiving from others, but also giving—by assuming our proper place in the body. Put simply, the Christian life requires both active and passive participation: other people need you, and you need others. God’s plans for the church are illustrated wonderfully in several of the key metaphors used in the New Testament for the church. The temple (Eph. 2:21-23) depicts a place where God’s presence dwells, and a place that is being built of many different pieces (people). This image highlights how we are being constructed together, and the wonderful promise of the presence of God in the midst of our life together. The body (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:11- 16) depicts a unity of purpose and mutual dependence on one another. There is an interconnectedness that is indispensable. There is a building and developing as we ‘grow up together’ into Christ our head.

FOUR PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIANS TODAY

First, don’t despair that you can’t meet as usual. You are still in Christ! But precisely because you are in Christ, seek out ways to ‘meet’ with others. We have unprecedented opportunities to gather virtually as a church. So, even in days like these, we should not forsake coming together. In fact, especially in days like these we should be all the more diligent to seek out opportunities to meet together. Because the times demand change for us, we must be patient and persistent.

And we must remember that there is great promise even in few numbers; even where two or three are gathered, for Christ has promised us his presence.

Second, when you ‘meet’ with others, don’t forsake the significance of hearing from God’s word. The word of God is the richest thing we can offer to someone. We should find ways to mutually encourage one another from the truth, especially when the world seems turned upside down. Helping brothers and sisters to fix their eyes on Christ once more will prove to be an anchor in the midst of much turbulence. Third, recognise how important we are to one another. On our worst usual Sundays together, we allow church to be a passive experience for the majority of the congregation. Now more than ever we are in danger of only receiving. But in the midst of change, we should expect different people to exercise gifts that may otherwise lie dormant in church life. We must prayerfully consider the needs of others and how we might serve our brothers and sisters. In particular, we should be mindful of those in our churches who will be most needy in times of isolation. In times of forced seclusion, there is a temptation to turn inward and only think about our individual needs in the confines of our own bubble. But we must pursue a thoughtful awareness of others. This will be an opportunity for us to be appropriately counter-cultural, rejecting the panic-hoarding of the world around us, and turning instead to think of our neighbours. And, as people serve us, we should be prepared to offer them encouragement and gratitude. But we also should consider how we can help others be more aware of needs. People will both need to seek others out, but also communicate openly when they are struggling and have practical requirements.

Finally, we should not lose hope. Though things look, feel, and certainly are very different during this pandemic, we must remember the promise that Christ gave us: he is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Even if we are unable to physically gather, we can still ‘gather’ together under the word.

As we do, even then as we meet virtually or in few number, Christ has promised to be with us. And, when we meet under the word of God, in the presence of Christ, we can be assured that he is maturing us as his people.

ChrisBrennanResilience is a buzzword in many circles, and aren’t there plenty of days we would love a good dose of it for ourselves? Chris Brennan encourages us to reflect on ourselves and our situation to help us get that dose. Chris is the Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral Armidale.

One of the big topics in ministry circles at the moment is resilience. It certainly seems big to me as I experience varying occasional sequences of busy-ness, tiredness, disfunction, envy, frustration and then discouragement in ministry. It happens enough for me that I can sometimes find that I have taken my eyes off all that God has done in the Lord Jesus and is doing through me and around me. And then I hear the crushing news of those ministry fellows who have stumbled, stumbled out of ministry, stumbled out of positive relationships, and even stumbled out of faith. Resilience in ministry is certainly worth the discussion. Some time ago I asked the resilience question of one of those who stumbled. I asked ‘Why is ministry so hard?’ His answer was fulsome, grounded in experience, and practical wisdom, and I’m going to share his insights, mixed with mine, as I have reflected further on what was said. What follows is not a carefully researched study, but merely a reflection of what I found to be a really helpful conversation.

Along with crucial self-care, a careful management of our expectations seems to be an important but often overlooked key to hanging in there. My dear brother helpfully reminded me that firstly, and most importantly, ministry has always been hard. This fact is worth pointing out because we will all live it. We tend to moan about tough days, or particularly busy and stress-laden months, but the apostles daily faced death and hardship in a hundred different ways. In later centuries faithful ministers worked away in their plague-ravaged villages, often succumbing themselves. Missions into war zones, leper colonies and into dangerous and violent jungles are less than a generation old, and even today some really brave and faithful Christians willingly give away daily face to face contact with family members, familiar streets, comfortable climates, and good coffee for the sake of the gospel—hard to believe, but true! In reality, our hard days, here in Australia at least, don’t end in a beheading or crucifixion, but our expectation of ministry should be to expect hardship and personal cost. To have a different expectation is to ignore what Jesus says, and what his people have experienced down through the ages. We need to foster within ourselves a realistic expectation of this, while at the same time developing a right priority of obedience to Jesus over comfort. Even if this stands against what our culture and our sinful selves might attractively counsel, desire, and justify. A thorough and personal reading of Matthew— or at least 10:34-39 if you are really busy—will be a good corrective, along with the pastoral epistles, and the Ordinal for that matter, especially if it is a while since you looked at them.

Secondly, each personality type creates different pressures for each minister of the gospel. It is well worth taking the time to reflect on what kind of person you are (and your spouse too, if you are blessed to have one). The task-focused and driven among us will experience stress as people fail to meet what we see as necessary expectations. The flow on will be the major stress of relational conflict, where our side of the conflict will often be unhelpfully and liberally seasoned with self-righteousness and presumption. On the other hand, the more relationally focused, or academic among us, may struggle to be organised, or to be able to get through all that we need to get through because we are so busy caring or learning. The pressure of time, and the danger of permeable work-relationship boundaries can cause real issues at this point.

Each personality is different, and each will carry with it unique dangers that can impact on us in different ways, at different times.

We need to know ourselves in humility and acknowledge properly that the church is a body with different members: different in maturity, ability, role and responsibility, but equal in value. This will go some of the way towards building more realistic and theologically balanced expectations for ourselves and others.

A second, related danger here is that our personalities will lead us to hear or read unhelpfully. If I am a task-focused pastor located in a remote community with a small population, reading the latest mega-church, step by step leadership guide to awesome godliness and a church of a thousand, may be far less than helpful. It might even be downright unhelpful and depression-inducing if we can’t recognise our unique selves, and unique situations as we hear or read. Similarly, if I don’t recognise myself well, then I may not read at all something that might helpfully correct my lack in this area or that. Ministers of the gospel have been victims of living in the social media opinion bubble for longer than social media has been around, I think. It is important too, to remember that aspects of our personality and effectiveness are properly open to reform by God’s Spirit through exposure to his word and the godly counsel of the wise. Some weaknesses are sinful and require repentance.

A third reality is that our post-Christian and increasingly individualistic society brings to bear new and unique pressures that eat away at our time and confidence and therefore at our resilience. We need to note up front that we are part of this society, products of it, and therefore not innocent collateral damage of the shift—in some ways we propagate it. Although ministry has always been hard, individualism brings with it a staggering complexity. Only a generation ago, denominational ministers followed pretty closely to a set format, both liturgically and in terms of congregational expectation. They carried an authority that was rarely challenged, and their role revolved around Sundays and the regular occasional services (hatch, match, dispatch, and umpiring the local games of cricket). Evangelism could be run comfortably from the church through those services, Sunday schools and youth groups, trading on community expectations and a widely accepted authority. This form of ministry and evangelism sat comfortably in what was a basically Judeo-Christian world view, blessed with a fair biblical literacy and Sundays reserved for just these purposes. Clearly, the situation has changed.

Individualism has impacted both the wider population and the institutions that serve them, including the church.

People are far more suspicious of denominations, churches and church leadership (and with some good reason it must be said). People are far more focused on themselves, and seek self-actualisation, rather than fitting in with a broader paradigm (‘we’re all individuals’ someone once famously said). More comfortable with the supermarket approach, people seek options and points of difference. For the minister this has huge impacts. No longer is the denomination trendy, so we’ll go independent. No longer is the office valued, and so we’ll change the title and redefine the role. (I’m no longer a minister. My desk slab says ‘cool, relatable, lycra-wearing, fun-loving teacher of truth and eternal direction. See me for the best climate-neutral, and social-justice-approved coffee bean advice going around’). That creates a pressure. A pressure to be entrepreneurial, sadly competitive, and relevant in accordance with the assessment of a changing society, and deeper questions of worth from within. Our people too, having dispensed with clerical authority, have become more vocal about their preferences, not as preferences, but as essentials to connect with them and a society increasingly distanced from the church and less biblically literate. That’s why you must dress this way or that, play this type of music or that, with these lights, using these new technologies, addressing these particular hot-button issues, and for this long. Rocking up to church to work through the Bible as an authoritative and revealed text, using a set liturgy, a set song book and holding to basic orthodox theology does not easily sit with many of us and with the society thirsting for the new and exciting that we now inhabit. This creates extra work, and a perceived or real need to engage more fully with a quickly-changing and suspicious world. Conflicts arising today would have been unimaginable to many in the generations before us. On top of this there is now a new and significant administrative load created, at least in part, by the failings of those who came before us. This is particularly evident in the areas of safe ministry and compliance. Again, these burdens were not within the normal experience of those who came before. That said, our expectations must be built for the now, not for what once was. If we are going to minister in today’s world, we are going to have to acknowledge the situation and work in it, holding on to that which is essential and good, while being prepared to jettison some of that which was just easier. We will need to develop an expectation of flexibility and heightened relational engagement. We will need to be sure of the positions and directions that we take, why they matter, and be prepared to communicate this clearly, confidently, and with great patience.

All of this is about knowing ourselves, knowing our situations, and then in humility building realistic and godly expectations in the midst of this.

After all it is God’s church. If we want to survive in the ministry world, we will of course have to take on board all the self-care wisdom that has been helpfully generated, but we will need to do this carefully, not selfishly, slavishly or without consideration for others, but with godly flexibility and a view towards loving our neighbours and ourselves over the long term. We need to work on our own relationship with the Lord Jesus through prayer and Bible reading. We need to take our days off when we can, and make sure our staff, if we have them, can responsibly do the same. We will need to look after our marriages, and families as we seek to present those closest to us holy and blameless before the Lord, and we will need to develop a proper love for the brothers and sisters given over to our care in our churches. All of this will take time, energy and organisation, but perhaps the building of proper godly and humble expectations and understandings of ourselves and situations might help us here too.

Bishop Anthony Nichols died on 24 August 2019. This is an edited version of the eulogy his wife Judith gave at his funeral at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA on 3 September 2019.

Anthony Nichols was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire to a working-class family. He never sought honours or preferment. Being a bishop did not define him as a person so there are no pictures here of him in clerical garb today. Like many people from Yorkshire, Tony took frankness to an Olympic standard, as many of you know. His dad was aspirational and liking the free-spiritedness of Aussie airmen with whom he served during the war, brought the family to Australia in 1947. They subsequently moved to Wollongong, an industrial city south of Sydney where Tony and his brother Roderick were educated.

Tony’s Christian journey began at 14 years of age when he was asked to teach Sunday School, so he thought he ought to read the Bible. The first text that gripped his heart was Ephesians 2:4-5, “but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.” The church he attended with his family was spiritually dead but he often claimed it was through the prayer book service that he learnt of the need to follow Christ wholeheartedly, for forgiveness through Christ’s death on the Cross and the absolute certainty of the resurrection of the dead and judgement when Christ returns. His university days laid a strong biblical foundation for his faith through the Christian Union and he was challenged by the opportunity to share the Gospel with overseas students. He was the first Caucasian member of the Overseas Christian Fellowship. He taught for 2 years at Temora in rural NSW where he established follow up bible studies after the Billy Graham Crusade because none of the churches were willing to hold them.

  ChurcheJodieMcNeills everywhere have scrambled to respond to the crises of coronavirus. Jodie McNeill in Jamberoo, NSW had the bushfires to contend with before that. He reflects on the ministry opportunities we have now and may take into the future. Jodie is Senior Minister at Jamberoo Anglican Church on the south coast of New South Wales.

If we expected that the defining event of 2020 would be the Australian bushfires, then we were wrong. As green shoots begin to emerge from the blackened landscape, a new crisis has confronted our communities, and the impact is global. In drought, bushfire, flood, and now pandemic, our everyday life has been profoundly disrupted, and through this momentous occasion we will have fresh opportunities to glorify God as we minister his word.

Over summer we used the word ‘unprecedented’ on many occasions to describe the ferocity and widespread impact of the bushfire disaster that ravaged our country. Yet, as COVID-19 grinds our world to a halt, it has already demonstrated the potential to unlock new ways of doing church ministry. Whilst they are unrelated, the two disasters have built upon each other as our church has grown to become more connected with our community through crisis.

Initially, during the bushfires I was able to strengthen connections with my local community through my involvement as a volunteer firefighter with the NSW Rural Fire Service.

This gave me many opportunities to speak about my faith with my compatriots on the fireground who knew me as the local ‘Rev’. It’s also helped grow my friendships and connections more widely with the greater community. This inspired me to call a village prayer meeting in our church, which welcomed people from the brigade and beyond to ask God to bring rain to extinguish the fire, and to bring protection and comfort to all who were affected.

The bushfire crisis brought together our community, and our church was there to offer leadership and light in a time of uncertainty and grief.

What’s more, God clearly answered our prayers as he brought rain which overflowed the dry rivers and extinguished the unstoppable fires. It felt like this bushfire crisis brought a degree of engagement and trust from the community to talk more about spiritual things, and my own conversations about Christ served to further energise parishioners to speak more freely about their faith with friends and neighbours.

And then when we thought things might settle down, the coronavirus has shaken our world, and changed the way we do life. Though we are grieving the loss of propinquity, (as one of my theological lecturers once described face-to-face engagement), we are finding new opportunities to connect with each other and the wider population. As soon as the doors to our church building were closed, I chose to replicate our normal services using live streaming. I hastily moved around the furniture in church to enable me to stand taller and closer to the screen that displays our lyrics and liturgy, and I scrambled some tech to try and beam us into the homes of churchgoers and the wider, community audience. Even though a ‘live’ broadcast had many rough edges, I was keen to help our parishioners to keep the routine and experience of church, especially given the tectonic changes to interaction and scheduling. Plus, it meant that viewers were more likely to engage real time through comments and reactions, and it helped prevent people skipping forward through pre-recorded videos.

Yet, the greatest boon has been the opportunity to welcome many newcomers to our services, largely through their connections through social media with existing congregational members.

People I’ve been praying for have now tuned in to watch my church, and fellow RFS brigade buddies have even commented on my guitar playing! Also, I’ve heard that non-Christian spouses have been watching our livestream with their churchgoing husband or wife.

What’s more, I’ve been sharing the link to the livestream on our Jamberoo community Facebook page, and complete strangers have been telling me that they’re connecting themselves or their family members with our church services. We’ve even had some banter on my posts, which has led to an opportunity for me to engage in some full-on apologetics in the public Facebook group, which has brought about other ‘offline’ conversations between parishioners and neighbours. Even though our church building is closed, we’re welcoming many more people through our virtual doors from around the world, and we’re praying that they will join us physically when we’re able to open our doors soon, God willing.

What’s still more, we’ve now been able to welcome some of our older and technologically challenged members to simply phone into church and listen via Zoom to the whole service. This is something we didn’t use before, but now should be a new part of life after this virus. In addition to streaming church through Facebook Live, we’ve also run a virtual dinners and morning teas after church, encouraging members to join a Zoom video meeting to chat, together, about life. I’ve ‘chaired’ the gathering of around a dozen or so screens, asking people to share about their experiences of the week and to answer a sharing question based on the sermon.

Yet, there have been other significant changes that we have begun to enjoy over this period of isolation. Inspired by the daily rhythm of the sixteenth century, I encouraged members of my church to join me on Zoom for morning prayer each day at 7:30am.

To my surprise, up to a dozen people have gathered with me to start the day with prayer and readings from the scriptures.

Now we’ve got control over our diaries, maybe the people might revolt against the nine-to-five and reclaim time to enjoy precious fellowship with others on a daily basis? As our routines have vanished before our eyes, I have sought to put things into our life that might end up remaining with us in the postcoronavirus world.

It may be that the ease of videoconferencing means that we can grab half an hour of peoples’ time during their day, without any need of travel. Maybe this can be a new way of connecting that will supplement our normal face-to-face ministries, and

redeem some of the small blocks of time that are frequently wasted in our lives? Similarly, I invited one of our overseas missionaries to join an ad-hoc ‘missionary hour’ one Tuesday night at 7pm, and even though I gave the congregation only a few days’ notice, we were able to pull together a dozen or so people to meet in Zoom and to pray. This is the kind of thing that otherwise would have required more logistics and careful scheduling. But with the simplicity of videoconferencing, we can enjoy these kinds of events without too much effort.

I’m thinking of launching a similar thing for regular training events for our parishioners and key leaders. Perhaps now that videoconferencing is becoming as ubiquitous as SMS, we might be able to supplement or transform our current programming with short, half-hour sessions on screens? No longer will it require people to have a ‘night out’ to do a church event, because now we can grab 30 minutes of time, without taking up an entire evening?

There is no doubt that after the virus there will be a new ‘normal’ in our schedules and life. As we have been forced to adapt to using technology to beam out church to the world, we can also use this as an outreach strategy to encourage newcomers to ‘watch us online and then decide if you wish to join us’.

Maybe this is the way we can ease the transition of people into our gospel communities.

Maybe this dramatic change to life is giving us the special opportunity to harness the widespread use of social media as a tool for engaging the non-Christian world with the powerful message of the gospel. But we’re also praying that there will be one, significant change after we come through this virus.

We’re praying that many people would look back on 2020 and say that through this crisis they came to know Christ. For these unprecedented times offer our world a wake-up call that might make them alive in Christ. That’s our prayer.

Every now and then I like to devise and preach a topical sermon series. Some of these have been some of the most memorable series to me, and have sometimes gotten more engagement and discussion among the congregation than is usual. I’m no master of the genre, but here are three series I have preached.

  creed                                              

THE APOSTLES’ CREED

I thought preaching through the creed would be good catechesis—a chance to present a mini-systematic theology, an overview of the gospel story. If people knew the bones of the creed, and through this sermon series could put some flesh on those bones, they might be clearer on the gospel themselves, and better equipped to explain it to others. The series went: Founding Father (Psalm 104, James 1:16-18), Incarnate Son (Luke 1:26-38, Col 1:15-20), Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:1-6, Rom 3:21-26), Exalted King (Acts 17:22-31, Phil 2:5-11) and finally, Life-giving Spirit (Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). I did not expound any one of the readings, but preached sermons expounding the fatherhood of God, the incarnation of Christ, the atoning exchange of the suffering servant, his now and future reign, and the ways God is transforming the world to perfect Christ’s work. Years later a woman told me that when she had just come to church she arrived in time to hear these sermons and they were perfect for her as someone who needed a walk through the basics and the big picture. That was nice to hear.

 seven

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

Every so often someone writes a novel or makes a TV series based on the seven deadly sins: anger, pride, lust, greed, sloth, gluttony and envy. If they can give appeal to a TV series, why not to a sermon series? I developed these talks using a consistent set of questions to give structure, namely: 1) What is sin X, and why is it your enemy? 2) How is Jesus the remedy for sin X? 3) How is living by the Spirit the therapy for sin X? And 4) What do you need to do? This repetition (hopefully) hammers home the message that sin is your enemy, Jesus is the remedy and living by his Spirit is our therapy in this life, and that there are particular steps to take in escaping these sins. The individual sins bring out different sides of Jesus’ holiness of life and atoning work as they are opposed to all sin. His life and death are all humility, against all pride. His life and death for us are his faithful industry in God’s service, against all sloth. His life and death are his satisfaction in doing God’s will, against all gluttony and insatiability. After the gluttony sermon a group formed spontaneously to pursue the discussion. They read a book together and met several times. Food is a big deal, connected to a lot of personal issues, but it is not much talked about from the front of church (unless, for example, you preach through the seven deadly sins).

 paradox

PARADOXES OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

Reading Allan Chapple’s book True Devotion, I came across his section regarding the paradoxical nature of our relationship with God, which seemed to me a rare discussion of a true characteristic of our walk of faith. I hankered to explore this through a series of sermons on paradoxes of the Christian life, which came to birth last year. The six paradoxes were: Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:18-31, Is 53:1-5); Love your life and lose it, hate your life and keep it (Mark 8:22-38, Is 53:5-12); Christ is both absent and present (2 Cor 5:1-10, Psalm 13); We are at once sinners and saints (1 John 1:8- 2:2, Psalm 65:1-4); We are perfectly free and wholly enslaved (1 Cor 7:17-24, Exodus 19:1-8) and When we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 4:5-12, Psalm 22:1-11). I sought to use the same talk structure each time: first, Exploring the Paradox, where I showed each side of the paradox as it appeared in the Bible, and perhaps somewhere the two sides were both expressed together. Second came Resolving the Paradox, where I tried to show how both sides of the paradox were true and made sense, so that the paradox was not a contradiction, but an insight into the Christian life. Lastly came the section Living with the Paradox, where I tried to show how the truth of that paradox might shape our expectations and actions as we follow Christ. I may have bitten off more than I could chew at some points here, and I don’t have a story of these sermons making an impact on people. But I was very glad to have given it a go, and I might come back to this one day to see if I can distil the best of this series into a simpler and better set of talks.

Revelation 2 and 3. Seven what? Seven letters? Or something else?

BEN UNDERWOOD

The messages Jesus sends to the seven churches of Asia found in Revelation 2-3 are often thought of as letters – since the command to John is to write to the angels of those churches. But in many ways what is dictated does not have the form of a letter. The message-sender is identified, but not by name, and nor are there greetings. The opening formula, ‘these are the words of ’ are more reminiscent of a prophetic oracle than a letter. Is ‘letter’ the best way to think about what these pieces of communication are?

‘Why worry?’, you might ask. Isn’t the point to read them? Which is true. But we might have expectations of a letter that make what Jesus says in these messages strange. Why is he so stern? Why the rebukes and the threats to remove lampstands, to come like a thief upon sleepers, to spit his church out? Where is his tender love for his people and his unshakeable commitment to them? Are we allowed in the church at the start by grace, but need to stay in by our works? Is that the point of these messages?

It may help to think of these messages as more like communiques from the field commander to the troops on the battlefield, than personal letters from one individual to others. Jesus the Messiah, who stands at the head of the armies of heaven (Rev 19:11-16), whose troops are willing in the day of battle (Psalm 110), is writing as the great general to his churches, ‘personified’ here as angels, angels who might be imagined as part of the hosts of heaven. (The churches are ‘angelified’ rather than personified, really). The book of Revelation is a book full of conflict, conflict in which Christians are caught up, and must play their part. Sometimes the church is numbered (Rev 7:4-8, 14:1) like an Old Testament muster of fighting men (Numbers 1). And each message concludes with a promise to ‘the one who is victorious’, which sounds like a general exhorting his troops to fight in the hope of what victory will bring.

This may help explain why Jesus speaks so fiercely, and his expectations are so high. Jesus must lead his churches through a great conflict, and so he wants them to be fit for the fight. He must point out weaknesses in his churches and he must expect them to be dealt with, or he must deal with them himself. For this is not a drill. His people can come through, stand firm, bear witness, suffer and be victorious if they are ready, and not weakened by apathy, fear, entanglement with idolatry or impurity, inattention, lack of endurance, or a failure of insight. But if they lose their ability to love (Ephesus) or give way to fear and prove unwilling to suffer to be faithful (Smyrna) or fail to see teaching which leads them into sin (Pergamum), or allow such teachers to continue unopposed (Thyatira), or if they fall asleep (Sardis) or give up in the face of pressure (Philadelphia) or fail to see their true spiritual need, and fail to go to Jesus for it (Laodicea), then the churches will not be fit for the fight, and the hope of victory will be eclipsed by uncertainty.

This is not to say that Jesus’ troops will not be ready for the fight. I take it that Jesus is the kind of general that knows how to prepare his troops for battle, and to give them all they need to be victorious. But part of what they need is a frank communique to cause them to address their weaknesses so that when the day of testing and battle and suffering witness comes, they may stand.

Welcome to the autumn Essentials, a road trip that will take us through all manner of country. From the seven deadly sins to the four rules of evangelical longevity; from a bishop-to-be expelled from the Anglican Church in his ardent youth, to the return of psychedelics; from Christian work amongst WA school students, to the preaching of eternal hope at Sydney funerals: all this and more is here between these covers.

Topical sermons done well can season a basic diet of working though Biblical books for both preacher and hearers. I share some of my adventures in topical preaching on the Ideas Page. The funeral of Bishop Anthony Nichols was a significant occasion for members of EFAC WA, and we have a version of Anthony’s wife Judith’s eulogy included here. I am sorry not to have been at the New Cranmer Society Breakfast last year to hear the talk that Rhys Bezzant delivered there, but the next best thing is to read it here. Rhys achieves a rare combination of integrated theological and personal reflection in this engrossing piece.

2020 has the potential to be a significant year in the national Church and in the communion as the business of the Appellate Tribunal, the General Synod and Lambeth all unfold. We have news and opinion on these matters from Stephen Hale, Matthew Brain, Kanishka Raffel and Karin Sowada.

There are reflections on fresh work being done in WA as CRU West begins to fly, and on past work done in Sydney, as Peter Bolt draws our attention to the first Australian-born clergyman, 44 years the Dean of Sydney, the eternity-minded William Cowper.

The Bible Study might have been better in time for Christmas, but there’s nothing wrong with meditating on the birth of the Messiah in prophecy at any time of year. Thanks Michael Bennett for this encouragement. The book reviews are (I hope) a stimulating mix of secular and evangelical titles.

I also hope you are enjoying our new journal design (thanks Clare Potts). We are back to black and white printing this issue, but the team is continuing to think about how we can give Essentials the most bang for your buck. We are thinking about three 24 page issues per annum, and wondering whether this will allow us to afford colour printing. Let us know what you think about the frequency, length and level of production you think Essentials should aspire to. Let us know what you liked and what didn’t work for you. We hope to stimulate, connect and encourage EFAC members and others across Australia. Drop us a line.

Ben Underwood

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