Home group notes - By Revd Simon Butler
John 17:1-5 & 20-26, Ephesians 4:1-6
Setting the scene
Spring AD 58. Saul of Tarsus, or the Apostle Paul as we know him is preparing to leave Ephesus at the end of his second visit to the City.
He’s been working hard with the Elders of the Church to build unity in the Church, which like almost all the other early churches has its fair share of argument and wrangling.
From Ephesus Paul sets out for Macedonia hoping to make his way to Caesarea. He makes it, not an easy journey in the first century. And whilst he’s in Caesarea he’s arrested and imprisoned for causing all sorts of trouble. It’s at this point that he makes his famous appeal as a Roman Citizen, and he claims his right to speak to the Roman Governor and ultimately to Caesar.
And so his long voyage to Rome begins. It’s eventful, he’s shipwrecked, sees miracles and many people come to faith, but eventually he makes it, sometime around AD62 and he’s placed under house arrest in Rome. It’s from the house that he was confined to that he writes the letter we’ve just read from – the letter to the Church in Ephesus. At the time of writing the letter Paul has about 5 years left to live, before as tradition says, he is Martyred by Nero.
Paul knew the Church in Ephesus well, he’d invested a lot in it and his letter to the Church is primarily concerned with encouraging the church to be united, to move on from divisions and arguments, and take hold of what is thiers in Christ.
He expands the doctrinal and practical implications of the Church as the house of God, the bride of Christ, and the body of Christ. And as he does so he paints a picture of the church in its future state of perfection.
What planet does Paul live on???
Sometimes it can seem as though Paul lives with the fairies – the pictures he paints seem so unrealistic, so at odds with our own experiences – he’d recognise that and agree. But the pictures he paints are to call us forward, to help us to throw of anything that hinders and holds us back, as we move step by step closer to the ultimate reality in which the church will one day live. The visions that he sets out are to encourage us to make real what has been promised. To start living now, in as many ways as we can and as consistently as we can, what we can only fully know in eternity.
This isn’t to say that Paul’s indulging in idle speculation or fiction or fantasy, like Plato with his republic or Thomas More’s Utopia. It’s not just a vague dream.
The Church is the body of Christ, Christ lives in his Church by his Spirit, Christ is holy, blameless, and pure, and as his body so too is his Church as it lives in him. And what the church will be is rooted not in our ability to achieve it, or in our dedication to making it happen, but in the work that Christ has already done, and in what he has already achieved.
Anyone with any degree of self-knowledge knows that failure to be all that we can be is a recurring part of our Christian life. So often we do not live the holy, blameless, and pure life that we’re called to.
Spend some time confessing, either quietly or to your group, the things that you need to lay down and as forgiveness for.
Perhaps the group leader can then pray the following:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent,
Have mercy on us,
Pardon and deliver us from all our sins,
Confirm and strengthen us in all goodness,
And keep us in life eternal
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Prayer and Praise:
Spend some time in prayer, praising God for all that Christ has won for his church. Thank God for securing for his Church the holiness, blamelessness and purity that Christ himself possesses.
Perhaps spend a little time refecting on the idea that all that is Christ’s is imputed to his church.
To those outside....
Sometimes Christians individually and the church corporately can seem like the most outrageously self-indulgence and arrogant lot.
At times it can seem as though the church is an organisation for the smugly self-satisfied and the (often hypocritically) self-righteous. A club for those who are (or at least think they are) perfect and good.
In reality of course we know that the church is none of these things – although those who think it is do certainly exist.
Christians come to Christ not because we think we’re deserving and worthy of him, but because we know we are undeserving and unworthy and need to grace and mercy that Christ offers us.
The church is not a clean and tidy club for the middle classes. It is a messy, compromised, and raggedy collection of people, who are united because Christ has called us to himself.
The Church is a collection of people who are not yet what we want to be, but who trust Christ to bring about the change in us that we long for.
In all the daily mess and compromise, we believe Christ is at work, reshaping us, giving us second chance after second chance, calling us to know him and follow him.
We’re just the same as the disciples in the New Testament (the real ones not the idealised story book ones) – people who have responded to Jesus invitation to follow him and find life in all its fullness.
Reflect and discuss:
How comfortable are you with the idea that the church is full of real people? It sounds like a silly question, but so often church fellowship can be contrived and un-real. Many people feel the pressure of ‘keeping up appearances’, denying mistakes, pretending that everything is ok when it’s not, and upholding the facade of respecatbility.
For church to be all that it can be, it must be a real fellowship, where mistakes are accepted, where people are free to get things wrong, where it’s ok to admit that life is not as you’d like, and where maintaining the facade of respectability is utterly un-important.
When church can provide such an environment, fellowship can be real, and relationships grow.
How easily do you default into maintaining the facade of respectabillity? How easy is it for you to be open and honest in this church community and perhaps even in your housegroup?
How might the perception of church to those outside be influenced by our attitude to these things?
Coming back to out theme: The Church is one.
We’re not talking here about a spiritual morphing into one being, such as in Hinduism where we find the idea that the goal of life is for the soul / spirit of each person to be taken up and incorporated in the supreme being. To be literally made one.
What we’re talking about is the root of the church. The one-ness of the church is not found in every agreeing, nor in spiritual absorbtion into the divine, or for that matter each other (the thing that comes to mind is an alien thing out of Dr Who that eats people and then their faces appear on different parts of its body...i also have a picture of who’s face would appear where but we won’t go into that.)
Paul says that the Church is one because there is:
One body – there is one head, Christ, and all that know and love him are called his body. The head has only one body.
One Spirit – there is one Holy Spirit, that is the life of the one body, living in all the members of the body.
One hope – we share the hope that the redemption and blessing that Christ has promised will one day be ours. The hope is the same and the hope is shared.
One Lord – the church has one Lord. Jesus Christ, who as Lord calls us his own posession. Christians are no longer their own, but instead we all belong to Christ.
One faith – that is to say that we are held together in the profession of Jesus as Lord, and that we trust in this.
One baptism – the sign and symbol of the covenant promises of God is the same for all of us, as the covenant under which we live is the same for all Christ’s church.
Reflect and discuss:
Working down the list above, in what practical ways can these things be worked out? How can the ‘one-ness’ of the church be reflected through these things in real life?
“One God and Father who is above all and through all and in all”
What does that mean? It means that he pervades and fills all with his life giving presence. Now it’s important to remember at this point that Paul is speaking specifically about the Church. We’re not talking here on the wider issue of God sustaining creation and the natural order.
The ‘All’ is the church. God is above all (the Church), through all (the Church), and in all (the Church).
God as Father is over all his children, he is at work through all his children, and he is at work in all his children.
He is over his church in that he is Lord of it, and we together are under his authority and rule.
He is at work through all his church – bringing redemption and reconcilliation to the world, issuing his invitation to all people to come to him, receive the grace and salvation that he so freely offers.
He is at work in all his church – shaping, convicting, changing, growing, calling us to become more and more like Christ.
Above us all. Through us all. In us all.
The church is struck through with God, his presence pervading every aspect of its life and work. Filling the church. Empowering the church. Leading the church. Sustaining the church.
And we are the church.
For such a church, there is no fear over what the future holds. No need to be defensive or withdrawn. No worry about its idenity or mission.
Such a church is confident and gracious. Bold and humble. Radical and welcoming. Missional and open.
Praise and pray:
This is God’s church. Wow! He is at work over it, through it, and in it. No question of that – he really is.
He is above YOU! He is working through YOU! He is working in YOU!
What a privilege, what a joy, what an empowering. Spend some time thinking about this, and allow this appreciation to turn into prayers or songs of praise and worship.
Be encouraged, pray for one another, that God over all, through all, and in all, may continue by his Spirit at work, to work above and through and in YOU!