You Foolish Galatians!

Recently at Hobart Baptist Church we recently began a new series of messages based upon Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I’m looking forward to all that God will bring out of it for us.

Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles-_by_Valentin_de_Boulogne

“Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened.”

When he wrote this letter, Paul had just arrived back in Antioch in Syria after his first short term mission journey that lasted about 18 months. It was here he heard news that the new communities of faith he helped establish in the region of Galatia were struggling. Concerned for their welfare, Paul wrote a very firm, even angry, letter to them.

Now when we say Paul ‘wrote’ a letter, it is good to remember this was 2000 years ago when literacy was sparse and the cost of materials high. Paul was not skilled at writing so he would have engaged a professional scribe.

Traditional Christian art often depicted Paul at a desk, pen in hand. But this is not how it would have happened. Nor is the image accurate of him pacing back and forth dictating furiously to his secretary. Rather, for Paul, letter writing would have been a very time consuming process.

He most likely would have been with his team in a room tossing around ideas that were captured laboriously by the secretary.

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Let’s Not Lose Them

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, often called the “birthday” of the church. On Pentecost we celebrate a major turning point in the life of the early Christian church when the Holy Spirit ‘came upon them’.

Jesus' followers

“The world has never been the same since, with Jesus’ followers now numbering more than two billion and still growing”

In the weeks following Jesus’ death and resurrection, a small band of followers had huddled together hiding from the authorities that crucified Jesus. But on the day of Pentecost (Pente = 50 days after resurrection) they were transformed, and with great boldness and clarity began spreading the good news that Jesus was alive and Lord over all. (See Acts 2.) The world has never been the same since, with Jesus’ followers now numbering more than two billion and still growing.

Over the past weeks at Hobart Baptist Church we have been focusing on the Holy Spirit and how important he is to the church and our lives. Without him there wouldn’t be a church.

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Pentecost: A Birthday!

The day of Pentecost is one of the most important days in the life of the church.

Just as each year you celebrate your birthday, at Pentecost we celebrate the birthday of the church. The events of that day so empowered a group of people and ignited such a passion in them that the effects are still felt in the world today. Have you ever prayed that God might do it again in your life, in your city?

Birthday candles, flame, wind

Just as each year you celebrate your birthday, at Pentecost we celebrate the birthday of the church.

On that day Jews from across the known world had gathered in Jerusalem for one of their annual celebrations. Only weeks before they had come for another festival, the Passover, when there had been a small disturbance when yet another messianic hopeful, Jesus of Nazareth, had been crucified by the Romans. His small band of followers were in hiding fearing reprisal and nowhere to be seen. There were rumours circulating that some people had seen Jesus alive.

Then, something unheard of took place.

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Avoiding that Final Journey?

Death is one of those things we avoid in any way we can. We fill our lives with things, we immerse ourselves in books, movies or other fantasies, we focus on our careers neglecting everything else, we party, play and distract ourselves from the impending, inevitable reality.

However, we don’t do death like we used to. Once afraid of ‘meeting their maker’, today people are resigned to there being no meeting at all. No longer afraid of going to hell, most are fearful of going nowhere at all.

Religious Candles and Cross

Often today’s funerals are not even about the person who died but about “managing our grief.”

Today people want to die quickly, preferably in their sleep. In the past when most people had a Christian worldview even if they were not Christians, they wanted to know when death would come so they could be prepared. “Prepare for what?” you might wonder.

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Following Jesus: An Amazing Adventure!

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, the day Christians traditionally celebrate the birthday of the Church. It was on this day nearly 2000 years ago that Jesus completed his mission on Harvest timeearth with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The celebration of Pentecost is one of the three pilgrim festivals of the nation of Israel and falls 50 days after the Passover. It is a holiday celebrating the firstfruits of the harvest which declared God’s ownership of the land and God’s grace in that the land produced food.

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The success of failure . . . and the failure of success!

Often when discussing how Jesus said we – his disciples – would do even great things than he did, people look stunned and ask, “Even walk on water?”

I respond, “Jesus was not the only person to have walked on water.”

Incredibly surprised they ask, “Who else did?”

Peter,” I reply.

And almost dismissively they say, “Oh yes, that’s right” (see Matt 14:22-31).

Their response reminds me how often we view things through the lens of failure rather than success. We think of Peter as one who sank in the water, forgetting that to sink, he first had to walk on the water.

We overlook the reality that Peter daringly stepped out of a boat into the darkness in the middle of the lake of Galilee. We don’t stop to imagine what Peter must have felt in those moments to choose to step out of the boat. We miss the point that it was a moment of triumph, Peter actually walked across the top of the water.

Sadly, our recollection of the event is coloured by the next few moments when Peter’s resolve quivers and he begins to sink. “What a failure,” we conclude forgetting what he has just achieved and missing the fact that there were 11 cowards who never got out of the boat. We are quick to condemn Peter, and slow to condemn the others.

Why are we so quick to do so?
Why see Peter as a failure rather than a success?
Why is success such an obsession and failure such a problem?

Perhaps it is part of our fallen nature. When Jesus taught he turned the world’s value systems upside down. For instance, those whom the world considers rejected by God are in fact blessed (blessed are the poor); and those who are gentle and humble inherit the earth (blessed are the meek) rather than those who are aggressive and charismatic (see the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5).

When Jesus taught, he turned the world’s value systems
upside down.

Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God – a place where God rules with a very different value system. While on earth Jesus formed a little group around him whom he prepared for the coming kingdom.

Peter’s walking on water was part of that learning and it seems like Peter learnt well. Even though he sank that night, at least he had a go. Ultimately Peter is the one who has the courage to stand on the day of Pentecost and explain what is going on. It is he who has the courage to stand and testify before the Sanhedrin. It is he who, when commanded by them to stop preaching in Jesus’ name, tells them that he can’t obey and will continue to preach (Acts 4:13-20 and 5:27-32).

Failing and Learning
Peter did not ‘fail’ that night on the lake; rather he had a very good moment of learning. He demonstrates an important principle for us all: successful people fail every day just like everybody else, but they view their ‘failure’ as an opportunity, not as a threat.

In fact, from the world’s point of view Jesus was just another failed Messiah. It appears that his career was cut short and his dreams never realised; his plans were thwarted and his work unfinished. However, the resurrection changed everything. The ‘failure’ of Jesus in fact becomes the hope of the world. All our failures now have the opportunity to become successes.

When Jesus chose obedience to Father he knew it meant choosing failure by the standards of the world. In doing so he demonstrated once and for all what true success is. When stripped down to its basics, success is faithfulness and obedience to the will of God – everything else is lost in comparison.

When we come to look at the church today, and at the lives of fellow Christians, it is too easy for us to view the church and each other through the worldly lens of success.

Thankfully God doesn’t view us that way. Jesus demonstrates for us this amazing paradox: the failure of success, and the success of failure.

May God grant you a renewed mind to view the work through this lens of the Kingdom of God.

Stephen L Baxter

Catch Me if You Can!

 . . . OR, A Divine Game of Chasey

During the Sunday sermons at  Hobart Baptist, we are currently making our way through the book of Acts and I keep emphasising how amazed I am at the number of times God takes action and the church plays ‘catch up’.

Time and time again the Holy Spirit intervenes taking the initiative in the Christian community and the people have to adjust to the new thing happening. The story of Acts is the story of the forming of the church.

The reason I believe it is important for us to study Acts is so we recognise when God is at work in our church and in our community. And more than that, so that we’ll be ready to “catch up” with what God is doing.

Throughout the book of Acts God takes action, and the church plays ‘catch up’

In his book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Darrell Guder makes the compelling point that transformation (his word is conversion) should be the constant experience of the church. If the church is obedient to its Lord, it will continually experience transformation. Why? Because the church exists for God’s purpose and it is God who is at work within and amongst her to achieve these purposes.

Years ago the German theologian, Karl Barth, made the comment: “There is a Church because there is a mission.” I said something similar last Sunday (June 17) when I suggested, “The church does not have a mission, instead, God’s mission has a church.”

This is significant. The church will continue to experience transformation not because we want change, nor just because we live in a changing world, but because the church does not exist for itself.

The church was brought into existence with a purpose, and that purpose remains because
God is at work achieving his purposes.

This is the importance of the book of Acts for us. It gives insight into what it means to be the church called into existence for the purpose of God. Sadly, a quick look at church history reveals we haven’t always been good at keeping this focus. Time and time again we get drawn into worrying about our survival rather than focussing on what God is doing in bringing the “kingdom” to earth.

In fact, there are hints of this even in the New Testament. Guder remarks: “Whereas the early Christian community was established by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a missionary people sent into the entire world as salt, light and leaven, it began to be concerned with its identity, structure and survival.”

As a result the perception of the gospel changed. The focus of salvation was no longer on the coming of the “kingdom” but upon meeting individual human needs.

The same temptation is no less real for us today. Living in a consumer based, individualistic world it is easy to drift into believing salvation is all about my needs, my desires, and my wants focusing on what happens after death. The gospel is that, but it is far more. Being saved is being caught up in God’s big plan to bring salvation to planet earth as well as all the people who live on it. As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The church’s focus is not about my salvation, but about God’s big rescue at work in and through his church.

So here the challenges before you and me as we seek to live faithfully:

  • Are we going to allow the significant issues we face as a church (locally, but also across our state and nation) cause us to focus on matters such as “identity, structure and survival”; OR will we learn from Acts and ask God for the revelation, insight, illumination and wisdom to perceive what it is God is doing?
  • Will you and I allow ourselves to be caught up in God’s purposes; OR will we focus on our own needs?
  • Will you and I pray, “Lord, save us”; OR “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

My prayer is that during your journey through Acts you will be encouraged and inspired to “catch up” with the things God doing in your church, in your family and in your community.

Stephen L Baxter

Get with the Program!

The rediscovery of Missio Dei, has been described by some as one of the most important theological rediscoveries of the twentieth century. The Latin Missio Deimeans “the mission of God” or “the missionary God” and has at its heart the idea that we, the church, are part of a big story beginning in the heart of God. God is at work redeeming his world and this work culminated through the obedience of Jesus to death and resurrection. It continues today through the sending of the Spirit and the commissioning of the church to work with God in that mission.

The fledgling Church grew beyond all expectation

On Sundays at Hobart Baptist we are currently working our way through the book of Acts, Luke’s story of the beginnings of the church. Luke’s story had two parts. In part one, the Gospel of Luke, he tells the story of Jesus’ personal and public ministry on earth. Now in part two, the book of Acts, he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry from heaven, exercised by the Holy Spirit through his people the church.

As we work our way through Acts we will see again and again how God is at work through the church helping the church fulfil God’s mission. We see, surprisingly, how the early church did not have a ‘missions program’, the reason being is that it was the missions program. The church did not produce missional activities because the missionary God was at work and the church were those activities. In other words, the church did not define mission, the mission of God defined the church.

We see, surprisingly, how the early church did not have a ‘missions program’, the reason being is that it was the missions program.

Acts reinforces what the whole Bible records, that the mission of God is the centrepiece of history and demonstrates what it looks like when the church is commissioned to help God with that mission. It highlights that we are the missional people of God.

Every one of us, whether individually or corporately, are on a mission, but it is not our mission. This mission emanates from the heart of God. It is not an add-on to other church activities, it is the very reason for our existence. Everything else is we do is peripheral.

We are God’s missional community called into existence to be the outworking of the missional heart of God. We have been given the Spirit to equip us as we join God in the mission to renew the world with the gospel.

My prayer is that we will be inspired by our series in Acts:

  • That it will give us insights into the missional heart of God
  • That we will find ourselves more and more aware of what God is doing in the lives of those around us.
  • And that we will be a church ready to be used by God however and whatever that might mean.

How about you?

Stephen L Baxter

God is Sovereign Over All – He works in spite of human failings

I believe to be one of the most important themes in the Book of Acts is the sovereignty of God.

God is sovereign over all

God is Sovereign over all, from Heaven to Earth

While some read Acts as if it is a manual for church life or church growth, (although there are things to learn about these) closer inspection reveals this is not Luke’s purpose in writing the story of the early church. Luke does not set out to describe how the early Christians got things right and in doing so forced God to act, rather, he tells the story of broken, flawed and fallen saints, just like you and me, through whom God worked in spite of their human failures. And even when they do appear to get things right, God often carries out his purposes in new, different and unexpected ways.

Luke begins exploring this theme right at the beginning in Acts 1. Here, 120 followers of Jesus look for a replacement for Judas, who is now dead. Although Matthias is chosen, Luke never mentions him again in his writings. It is Saul, introduced in Acts 8 and converted in Acts 9; who then undergoes a name change to Paul in Acts 13; who ultimately fulfils the task of apostle and is the driving force behind the gospel’s acceptance by Gentiles. The man-made-made choice in Acts 1, is overturned by God in Acts 13.

Similarly Stephen and Philip, two of those chosen in Acts 6 to be deacons to care for widows, become more effective evangelists than the apostles they were appointed to assist. And then, despite the fact that Jesus told his disciples they would be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and right across the world (Acts 1:8), it is not their initiative but the persecution described in Acts 8 following the death of Stephen, that finally gets them out of Jerusalem. They took no initiative at all, but God used persecution to get them moving.

Obviously there isn’t the space to explore all the examples of human failings in Acts, but these few serve to illustrate that Luke does not give us a formula that we can follow to get the results we desire. There is no simple pattern outlined that we are to follow that will ensure a church grows – just as there is no pattern to follow ensuring we receive the power of the Spirit as happened at Pentecost.

One of the primary purposes of the Book of Acts is to show the story of God at work. Luke starts his account before the birth of the church and follows its growth through persecution until it reaches the capital of the known world, Rome. Throughout the story Paul illustrates how God acts the way he wants, when he wants, and no one can thwart his purposes. Then even when the church appears to get it right, God retains the right to do it his own way.

Working through the Book of Acts, the reader comes back again and again to this theme of the sovereignty of God. There are no formulas, no patterns, no manuals, just a loving God, at work in his world, drawing people to himself.

Can you think of times in your life when, despite your own poor efforts, God turned up anyway?
If so, Id love to hear about them!

Stephen L Baxter

Catching the Wave

Last week at Hobart Baptist I began a series of sermons to work through the Book of Acts. I expect that as we read through Luke’s account of the early days of the church, we will be struck by the sense of momentum and adventure.

Those early days saw the emergence of communities of faith that were unique in the world because of their mutual accountability and generosity. People were drawn to God through an amazing mixture of radical community, miracles, and Holy Spirit-empowered living and witness. The result was a church that grew at an exponential rate.

But it was not all easy. The adventure was full of moments of great challenge and crisis. There were imprisonments and conflicts, persecution and even premature death. In a strange way these all added to the sense of wonder and adventure.

The impression you get reading Acts is that Jesus is building his church and the people are playing ‘catch up’. Time and time again God pops up and takes the initiative and everyone has to readjust to the new thing that his happening. Just like a surfer who sits on his surfboard waiting for a wave, Acts is like a story about a wave generated by the Holy Spirit which the followers of Jesus struggle to catch.  It is the story of God on the move and his people going along for the ride.

Perhaps you could also work your way through the book of Acts over the next few weeks?

If you do, it is my prayer that God will help you to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in your church community today; and then having perceived what he is doing we will have the courage to “catch the wave” and continuing being part of God’s great adventure.

I’d love to have your thoughts as you read it through! How does your ‘surfing’ go?

Stephen L Baxter