Friends in Christ

Who are your good friends? Are they the people you sometimes don’t see for months or even years but you can always pick up right where you left off? Or are they the people that know about your daily life and you don’t have to do “catch ups”? Are they the people who know they can always ask you for help if they need anything? Or are they the people that respect your personal time and space and know you well enough to realise when they are being invasive?

Ask this question a group of people and you are guaranteed to get an incredibly varied set of answers. In our current age of personal freedom and choice, people’s definitions, thoughts and expectations of good friendships can differ vastly, and here is where lots of problems in friendships come from, one person’s dream friend can be other person’s nightmare. Friendships are the least formally defined relationships we find ourselves in, there is no commitment, no goal, no contract, no promises we could really hold our friend accountable to.

What about Christian friendships though? Is there a different definition for those? The truth is we sort of think the Bible doesn’t teach anything about friendships and therefore, even if we want to improve on being a friend, our starting point is to import any of the definitions that suit us personally to the relationships we have with people in church. But is this really ok?

The Bible might not have a specific passage that provides teaching on friendship but it has a lot of material on church. The Bible doesn’t really think we need to know about friends because it says we are family. As in: your nearest and dearest, the people you share life with, the people you love and cherish. And far from being a nice metaphor - what corporation does not refer to its staff as family these days? - the Bible actually says that this family, for reasons we will see, is to be more valued and more special than any type of family the world could make.

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To understand why relationships in church are to be this close, we quickly have to look at the whole story of the Bible to see how the church came to be.

In Genesis chapter 2 we read about how man was made to be a social being, a being that needs others. “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). God made Eve for Adam so that she could help him with the task that God has given them both.

The last sentence before everything in the world goes wrong is this one: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25, emphasis mine) and then a few verses later, straight after they’ve eaten the fruit of knowing good and evil, here is the first thing that happens: “...they knew that they were were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Gen 3:7)

It seems a bit strange that these are the two points that mark the first massive difference of life pre- and post-fall. Why is it so important that people before the fall were naked and they couldn’t be naked anymore after it? The idea of nakedness here is about how there was nothing to hide, everything was open, clear and shared. But at the very moment people sinned, this perfect connection between them was broken and they had to put clothes on. The clothes are the visible aspect of the fact that humanity now hides from each other - to cover their own sin, and to protect themselves from being vulnerable to another person’s sin.

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The story of a complete breakdown of human unity, cooperation and understanding doesn’t stop here but culminates with the story about the Tower of Babel. It turns out that in the mix of fighting and competition and malice between people, as told in the rest of Genesis, the only project people can set aside their differences and competitiveness for is a project to unite together against God and prove to him they don’t need him. God punishes them by mixing up their languages, forcing people to disperse.

All the things that we now think off as the things that separate us from other humans come out of this moment. Language barriers, cultural barriers, personality differences, all of them started here.

We now live in an utterly cursed world, where we are cut off from God and separated from each other. Where all our relationships are fractured and frustrated.

But remember, God made people to be social beings who need other people deeply, who need to be understood, loved, cared for, who deeply need to belong. And because of God’s judgement, this is impossible.

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The story of the Bible is a story about God saving us from ourselves and from his judgement and bringing us back to himself and to the way we are meant to live. He wants to fulfil the desires that he made us with.  

If the story at the very beginning of the Bible is about how our deep problem of separation from each other has everything to do with our problem of separation from God then getting our relationship with God fixed MUST also have implications for our relationships with other people. And this is where church comes in. As scattering of people has always been part of God’s judgement so bringing them back in together is always part of the salvation he brought.

Ephesians 2 might be the clearest place where these two axes come together in one picture, but you would see the same if you read Isaiah or really any of the NT letters.

Paul starts with talking to people who started off being divided both from God and from being part of his people, the Gentiles, or non-Jews, who were ‘separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.’ Paul tells them:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility  by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. (Eph 2:13-15)

This passage deals more closely with the problem of Jesus’ sacrifice bringing down the biggest divide there was in the OT between the chosen people of Israel and everyone else. By implication though, if becoming part of Jesus’ one new man isn’t a case of being born to the right nation anymore, none of the other differences created by the Tower of Babel curse matter either. Jesus has ‘reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross…[and]...

came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.  (Eph. 2:17-19)

The cross has brought peace between God and people and between people and people. In exactly the same way first sin broke both of those relationships and created separation, the cross fixed both and created peace and unity through Jesus’s sacrifice. This is what the church is. A group of people brought into unity of living as one body under Jesus’ headship.

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In Ephesians Paul goes on to ‘urge’ the Ephesian church ‘to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

Paul says that the Ephesians should act in a manner that reflects what has happened to them - that they, all undeserving sinners, having been given all spiritual blessings, and, whatever culture or status or religion they were from, they have now been made part of God’s chosen family. They are all waiting for their home that’s being prepared for them where all of the divisions between people will be no more.

The Ephesians, and all Christians, know who they really are - as the gospel exposes us all them as sinners, we no longer have to cover up our own sin in order to appear better than we are. However not hiding our sin can make us feel really vulnerable because others can still either use it to shame and hurt us or to show themselves as better people than us. And people are going do these things. We’re not safe from shame, hurt and scorn even from people in church.

But Christians know people are only saved and seen as acceptable in God’s eyes through Jesus’ sacrifice and can therefore live in loving and close relationships, and they can be humble towards each other, admitting when they hurt each other, repenting of sins, and likewise forgiving each other when others hurt them.

Paul tells Christians that through this existing and real reconciliation between God and between people, we can love each other now as this special redeemed family, in a way that is unique from all other types of relationships in human history. We still sin and we still hurt each other, we will still have tendencies towards misunderstanding and hiding but we sin in knowledge of our real and present forgiveness from God, and in hope of being saved from these sinful, broken bodies at the resurrection, from all of the pain and hurt of this present evil age.

This is the definition the Bible provides for friendships within the church. They are not to be defined by us, the boundaries are not to be set by what feels comfortable to us, whatever type of friendship suits us best. We can’t continue to put on the clothes or the layers that cover up who we are, to set up divisions in which we hide our sin and hide ourselves from one another. There actually are no boundaries as the cross brought them all down. If Jesus made us all into one man then it stops being about what works for you. You get to love others as you love yourself. Nothing less.


Work/Life Balance?

Work/life balance. Our generation is obsessed with it. We would love to have a magic answer to the question: where should we invest the sixteen hours of our waking life so that we are completely happy with the results these investments yield?

As Christians, very often this is the approach we take to the way we make decisions about our church life. We spend eight hours a day at our work and then we have eight hours to play with. And here comes our church/life balancing act. How much church is enough church? How many hours of Bible reading, praying, how many small groups, events...

Somehow we are trying to make sure we also get to have a personal life or a rest alongside our church activities. But in this we are constantly plagued by a deep sense of guilt of not doing enough, driving ourselves to do more and more for God until we feel we have done enough.

I feel like we often treat church as work. I have even heard people say: “Serving as a small group leader feels like having a second full time job.” The Bible calls Christians workers at the harvest field so thinking of your ministry (whatever it is) as your work must be the right biblical view of it, right? 

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The question is: what are those workers in the harvest field meant to do? What is the work? People having conversations with Jesus in John’s gospel were curious about this too:

Then they said to him, “What must we DO, to be doing the WORKS of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)

Jesus has just told his disciples to seek God and eternal life. But the disciples want to know - what shall we do? How do we do the work God wants us to do? Jesus’s answer is that the work God wants them to do, God’s work in this world, is that people would believe in Jesus and what he does.

Later in John’s gospel we see why God is helping us believe. It is because knowing him is what life is all about. No, actually knowing him is what life IS: And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Eternal life here is therefore not just about your life lasting eternally but about the quality of this life too. The earthly life is a life of separation from God. Eternal life is gained through knowing Jesus and his sacrifice on our behalf that achieves the end of this separation from God created by our sin. We no longer face the penalty of sin which is death.

Perhaps Jesus is saying that there is no work to do at all then? Again John’s gospel addresses this question too:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12a)

So do we have any work to do? Yes, but the only work we have is the same work that God is doing, namely, to help us and others believe in him and know him.

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But how can knowing something be work? Work seems like something involving actions and achievement , and knowing seems like a static mental thing. And even if some of our actions seem directly related to spreading knowledge like telling people about God and forgiving and living in obedience to God - what about all the other actions we do in our lives? Are they separate or less important? Is there a good enough balance between them, you might say?

We’ve seen in John’s gospel that knowing Jesus means that we have eternal life, and that therefore we WILL do God’s work - that we would know him and help others know him. It doesn’t say that sometimes you will be engaged in God’s work and sometimes not. By believing in Jesus and receiving the Spirit of God in your life, God makes all of your life work for his glory, because he uses all of it to spread knowledge of Jesus to you and others and to keep all of his people going until the last day when the church will be gathered in person.

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Knowing God is not just something that happens within the walls of church buildings and during solely organised church activities. We come to church, we read the Bible, pray and talk to our Christian friends to learn about God, but the truth is that God is using everything in your life for you and the church to know him better.

Everything we do includes all of our activities and thoughts, in all times, all places. Whether we speak about Jesus or whether we fail to speak, we know better why he had to die and why it’s good to talk about it. We know him better.

Whether we care for our neighbour or whether we don’t, we learn about our selfishness and his compassion that is greater than any of ours could ever be. We know him better.

In fact, all of our obedience or disobedience helps us know God better. Whether we are productive or not, whether we are at church or not. Whether we work hard or whether we are lazy. Whether we read the Bible or we don’t. Whether we pray a lot or whether we fail to pray at all. We know him better.

Moreover, we now know God when we feel joyful about good things or when we feel empty in this world. When we weep because of loss and pain and when we rejoice because of love and hope. We know him better.

All the things in our lives tell us of what God has done for us because they show us what we do because of him and they also show us that we need forgiveness for the many things we fail to do. Everything in our lives helps us know God better because we learn about what he has given us already, things like hope and forgiveness, and about the things we are still waiting for, like the freedom from sin and pain.

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There is then no church/life balance, because there is no time of work and no work, church or not church, doing God’s work and not doing God’s work. When you know Jesus and how he has died and risen again to give you eternal life, then by grace you will do God’s work in this world. You will know him more and you will help others to know. Your actions, your labour, your work in this world will proclaim that in fact God is the one who is doing everything for us through Jesus.


We suffer for now

God has promised a lot of amazing things to his people. People who trust in Christ are restored to God, righteous, forgiven, loved: they are children and fellow-heir with Jesus of God’s perfect kingdom. They are people who belong to a place and a people not through their own achievements. It’s been given to them entirely as a free gift.

Jesus has come to earth and done all the necessary work of salvation on the cross, and has risen again, with him we too have conquered sin and death. It is certain, it is done.

As Christians we know that this is true. And yet we still live in a world that is broken in every way, full of suffering that we have to watch and that hurts us. We ourselves are physically and mentally broken and all of our thoughts, words and actions are shot through with sin. The things Jesus achieved on the cross are unseen and often seem far from certain. We don’t feel righteous and perfect, it doesn’t seem at all that we have conquered sin and death and decay still seems to reign in everything around us.

What can we possibly make of this situation? How can we reconcile living in these two states?

He has gone to prepare a place for us

The disciples faced the same questions when Jesus tells them he has to go away. These are recorded particularly in John’s gospel. Jesus tells Peter he’s going where they can’t follow him. Peter understandably doesn’t want to face any distance from Jesus. If to get to where Jesus will be, you need to die, that’s what Peter wants to do. ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’ (13:37).

But Jesus tells them not to be worried because he is going to his Father’s house ‘to prepare a place for you’ and will therefore ‘come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also’ (14:3). Moreover, Jesus will not simply abandon them until he comes back for them. He says he will ask the father to ‘give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth’ (14:15).

Jesus prepares the disciples, and us, for the fact that seeing him will change. We won’t see him physically anymore until he comes back but we will see him and know him because he is not going to leave us alone. He will send the Spirit to guide us in the truth. We are with him even when it doesn’t seem like it.

Peace with God not with the world

Jesus then talks more about what we can expect from the life we live between him being away and him coming back.

Jesus promises peace. But ‘my peace,’ that is to say, ‘not as the world gives.’ Jesus doesn’t promise the peace that the world seeks – freedom from sickness or loss, or war and affliction, or even a feeling of contentment or calm or purpose within all these trials, as much of the Eastern and now Western world have sought. Jesus promises none of these things, but the peace Christ alone brings, the peace of man with God, the peace of being one with God and part of his kingdom through Christ. We have this already because through the Spirit both Father and Son have made their home with us.

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Jesus says that ‘in me you... have peace’ but that ‘in the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’ (16:33). He says that we will suffer all of the tribulation – all of the trials, and pain, and affliction – that everyone in the world has. Christians aren’t in any way going to be exempt from these. That’s not what Jesus promised.

Not only that, but as Christians our relationship with the world becomes less rather than more peaceful than everyone else. This understanding of where peace that really matters is to be found and where it is not creates a stark divide between the followers of Jesus and everyone else. This is how he describes it,  ‘because you are not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’. People don’t really want to be told there is no peace where they’re looking for it.

Joy later

Jesus reminds the disciples – and us – that both are promised. The peace and the tribulation. The peace and the persecution. None of this is supposed to make us doubt that what Jesus has achieved is certain and definite. We are experiencing all the things Jesus told us beforehand that we would. Now in the world we suffer, but we have peace with God through Christ who will come back: there is an end to this time of peace but no peace.

Jesus again reminds the disciples of the glorious day when he will see them again properly, when all the trials and afflictions are finally over, when ‘your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ at all. In that day we will ’ask nothing’ of him because ‘our joy [will] be full’ (16:22-24).

Until then, Jesus doesn’t ask for the Christians to be ‘taken out the world’ of tribulation and persecution: we have been sent into this world like Jesus, though we belong elsewhere. He asks the Father ‘keeps them from the evil one.’ And what will be our protection from the devil, and our guarantee that we will get safely home to our God and Father? Truth in form of the Spirit, sent by the father, who will ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (14:26)

Go home

As a Christian, we will not have freedom from trials in this world - the difficulties and pain will still come, and in fact, we will face greater suffering from the persecution of the world that hates us. Although we have have peace with the Father and are with Jesus in the Spirit, our current experience in the world was never meant to be any easier or improved in any tangible way. It’s only going to be fixed when we are brought to the place Jesus is preparing for us. Suffering doesn’t question the reality of Jesus’ victory. Suffering shows us we aren’t home yet.




Homebound

‘Are you looking forward to going home?’ people kept asking me when I was moving from London back to Slovakia in August 2017.

‘No, not really,’ I said every single time.

How was I supposed to look forward to leaving a place where I had so many people who loved me and cared about me getting to know God better? It It’s not as if there were no such people back in Slovakia but it felt like it’s not meant to be like this, we’re not meant to have people we love far away from us, slowly drifting apart.

How can I ever feel at home anywhere if I never have all the people who I love and who have shaped who I am close by? You might say this is an unrealistic goal. Maybe. But WHAT IS HOME ANYWAY?

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I came to London five years ago with the feeling that life could finally, finally start after a lot of wandering in my life. I had a job, I would have friends in abundance, probably a boyfriend, a flat, a lifestyle. I would belong, I would be in the place I’d always felt was home but in which I’d never actually managed to live.

But the friends I had drifted into relationships and away from me, I moved from flat to flat, from one role into the next. As I knew the truth better I could see how empty the lifestyle was – London was only ever good for reminding you of what you didn’t have – a partner, a good enough flat, a nice enough holiday, enough money to really enjoy the London life. And my church felt all the more strange because it was the place that should have felt most like home, and yet never did – people who are there still felt distant and largely separate, the people I loved left because God had called them elsewhere.

People say I have unrealistic expectations of friendship and life and I’d be more content if I could just accept things as they are. But is it wrong to want to feel you belong somewhere among people you know well? -  IS IT WRONG TO WANT TO BE HOME?

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Home is where we belong, where we are loved, where we’re told we’ll always be safe, and that people will never leave. This is what we all want and need. And yet, it’s just impossible. Even the best homes, with the best people who love us the most, can’t really keep us safe forever, and we all know no one can promise they won’t ever hurt us or they won’t ever leave. Because even if they don’t, people die. And then our homes are never going to be properly homes again.

We all say it’s ok, it doesn’t matter that much, we can learn to live in a world with shattered pieces of home. We say we can learn to belong everywhere and nowhere. We can accept people who occupy places in our hearts leaving for all sorts of reasons or to all sorts of places but NO! Despite what we say, we’re not really ok with it and we never will be.

As Christians though we have something better to hope in. The Bible says it’s ok to long to be in a place where we belong, where we are loved, where we are safe and where there are no goodbyes and no distances. Because God made us to want and need these things. To be in a proper relationship with him, face to face, and to be a people united in him.

The Bible also says that this world is not where they are going to be found. God says we need to be rescued from this world that is a broken home to a new world where he will be in the centre and all the things that are wrong here will be fixed.

This blog is about what it is like to know this world is not our home and never will be and how knowing that there IS a home to look forward to shapes how we live on our way there. It is about learning that our journey is not about trying to cling more and more to whatever imperfect pieces of home we have here. Rather, it is about seeing God and his love for us in Christ more and more clearly, seeing our home with him more and more brightly, and ultimately being more homesick for there than anywhere on this earth.

We talked a lot about this before and since Lea left London. This blog is going to include posts largely based on the conversations we have had about this topic.