It has been some weeks now into this lockdown, and we don’t expect to be out of it any day very soon.
But God has not changed, and we find Him very near when we seek Him. At this time in our nation’s history, businesses are very concerned and anxious about how they are going to fare and what will happen in the afterward. The church of Jesus Christ is not a business. The church of Jesus Christ is a living thing. It is composed not of buildings but of people, and of people whose hearts are truly in love with God, and have found Him and have found His salvation. And I think that we have a choice with what we do during this time, and what our expectation is.
What has been impressed upon my spirit, and very much so over this last week, is to expect the church of Christ – not just our own church but the church of Jesus Christ – to emerge stronger and more alive: but that is dependent on our keeping a flame alive inside us. It is dependent on our not sinking into a certain insularity, which could easily happen because of the lifestyle that has been imposed on many of us. If you are one of those who is having to work very hard, perhaps in the front line, then you think you are not sinking into insularity, and yet you can become very enclosed in the world of ‘work, eat, sleep’, and just trying to keep going from day to day.
For others who may be in the shielded category, it would be very easy to become actually shielded from life, and to find it hard to pick up the threads again. And for all of us, as we are living in smaller groups and have less contact with one another, what is vital is that we do not see the church as just marking time during this period, but that it will actually grow, not only numerically, but in its faith and in maturity, to come into the full stature of a grown man or woman in Christ Jesus.
It caused me to think of the early church. There is a book about the growth of the church of Christ whose title, The Spreading Flame, I have always found very inspiring. In it, F. F. Bruce describes something of the early days of the church and how unlikely it seemed that it would take root and grow.
He says: ‘An observer in the middle forties of the first century might have concluded that the new movement had come to stay. He might even have considered the possibility that it would spread within Judaism until it had covered the whole Jewish world. By the middle fifties he would have seen, to his surprise, that it was spreading swiftly through the Gentile world and was being eagerly accepted by Gentiles. He would have shaken his head, however, in the middle sixties, as he saw it coming into conflict with the imperial police. That would put an end to it. But the events of the later sixties and the early seventies decided that, though the struggle might be long, the Roman empire and not Christianity would capitulate in the end.’
During those 250 or 300 years of the early church, she was a very living church, and (as the author says) the visible church and the true church of those who really knew Christ were more or less one. And we know that with Constantine embracing Christianity, at least in theory, it became an accepted religion, and ultimately there was a serious decline over succeeding centuries, until again and again God has intervened and moved.
In the words of the apostle Peter:
Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you. (1 Peter 4:12)
That early church was born in fire. Peter knew there was a fiery trial of persecution breaking on the church of Christ that could have extinguished her. But in fact the fire enacted a purifying process: it was a refining thing.
The fire also caused the church of Christ to spread out. As people were persecuted they spread into different parts of the empire. I read during the time of the Australian bush fires recently that there is a phenomenon whereby the fire is used to explode seed, particularly in eucalyptus trees, so that the fire actually causes ultimate growth and fruitfulness. And so it can be for us, that instead of the fire of trial and present difficulties making us closed down and in on ourselves, thinking that the enemy has shut the church doors, we rather think that God is at work, and it is a time of opportunity when there can be real growth inward as well as outward, if we keep our look Godward and outward to our fellows.
We think of the church of Jesus Christ: it was the exploding fire that caused the seed on Calvary to take root, to grow, to spread. As one of Amy Carmichael’s colleagues said as they were looking at the grave of Ragland, an early pioneer missionary to India: ‘The best plan for growth is Christ’s own plan.’
Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abides by itself alone, but if it die it brings forth much fruit. (John 12:24 KJV adapted)
That is Christ’s own plan. He fell into the ground and He died. It didn’t look as though that tiny group that He had left would be able to spread His teaching. And we see how ultimately it came into conflict with the exceedingly strong power of the Roman empire, but nothing could quench the love that was deep in their hearts and zeal for Christ. The seed exploded with the fire of the suffering of Christ, and it exploded on the day of Pentecost with the coming of the fire of the Holy Spirit. And, praise God, that fire has never gone out.
I would say to you, to all our congregations and others who may read this: ‘Is that flame burning brighter now than when we last met together? Has it become an even more single-minded flame to God Himself?’ It means to be at His disposal, to fall into the ground and die: that is, to die to our own natures, ourselves, our pettiness at times. The things that can loom so large at other times have faded into insignificance at a time like this. And we say: ‘Lord, I want to be obedient. Bind me to Thee. Bind me to the cross of Calvary, that I’ll grow straight and strong and true, that Your church will grow straight and strong and true, bound to that cross of Calvary, till it will be said of Your own church and of our lives (because the church is made up of individual lives):
Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? (Songs 8:5)
That is the way to become the seed of corn that dies, to die to ourselves and our own natures and our own desires. It is to lean on Christ, and be the church coming up out of the wilderness leaning upon her Beloved.
Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners? (Songs 6:10)
It shall be the church of Jesus Christ: we do believe it.
Blessed be His Name.
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Struthers Memorial Church is a registered Scottish Charity No. SC 006960 | Struthers Memorial Church is a company limited by guarantee incorporated in Scotland Company No SC335480 | Registered Office: 33 West Stewart Street, Greenock, PA15 1SH.