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Schomberg Anniversary 2011


Jude 20-21

We read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome , and the image of the congregation that comes to mind is – is what? – a congregation of several hundred, meeting in a resplendent building, with no anxieties about its future or its finances?         The truth is, while it isn’t inappropriate to speak of the church in Rome in view of the fact that the church is the body of Christ and this body cannot be divided or dismembered; while it isn’t inappropriate to speak of the church in Rome, we know from the conclusion of Paul’s Roman letter that there were at least five house-congregations in the city.

Homes were small in ancient Rome ; at least the homes that Christians owned were small. Then how many people would a home hold when the congregation gathered for Sunday worship? Fifteen at most, I imagine. Fifteen times five is seventy-five. Seventy-five Christians in the city.

What was the population of Rome in the year 57 when Paul penned his missive?  One million. There were seventy-five Christians in a city of one million.  In other words, the Christian concentration in Rome was seventy-five parts per million.

What was the attitude of both the apostle who wrote the letter and those who read it?  Was the shared attitude, “We are hopelessly outnumbered.  We might as well give up right now.  No work or witness can be expected of us when we are only seventy-five parts per million”? On the contrary, the apostle thought that seventy-five parts per million heralded nothing less than triumph.

Let’s jump ahead from first-century Italy to eighteenth-century Britain . It’s the year 1750.  The Great Awakening has been underway for twelve years.  John Wesley has preached thousands of times and ridden thousands of miles on good horses and bad in bad weather and worse.  How many people have joined the Methodist movement?  He’s quite pleased with the number, and regards it as a triumph of the gospel. What was the number? In 1750, after twelve years of indefatigable effort, the Methodists numbered one-tenth of one percent of Britain . Forty-one years later, 1791, Wesley died. He and his helpers had laboured relentlessly during that time.  By now the Methodists numbered on-sixth of one percent of the population. Wesley maintained that a revival had occurred.

Schomberg in 2011.  What attitude should characterize the saints in Schomberg?  What are you people supposed to do?  I think we need to listen to another apostle, this time the apostle Jude. We need to listen to him as he encourages the people dear to him.

I: — First, says Jude, “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.”   “Your most holy faith” refers not to the individual’s act of believing but rather to what is believed, to the substance of the faith, to the truth of the faith, to that gospel which has been handed down from the first century to the 21st. The gospel isn’t something we invent; it isn’t religious opinion.  The gospel is given to us along with the self-giving of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of his stark letter Jude speaks of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”. It’s as though the divine equivalent of Priority Post delivered a weighty parcel to us and said, “Here it is.  This parcel contains inexhaustible riches. It’s been given you. You would never be so silly as to think you invented it and could therefore alter it. Just sign here to indicate that you are owning the parcel — and then benefit from it forever.”

No doubt someone wants to say that it isn’t quite this simple in view of the controversies that have abounded concerning the gospel.  If so much about the gospel is disputed, then to what extent has anything been delivered intact?

Actually, the controversies pertain not to the core of the gospel but to the periphery. Unquestionably there is disagreement about baptism, for instance: should believers only be baptized, or should believers plus their children be baptized?  There is disagreement about church government.  Should congregations be governed only by themselves, or by bishops, or by a system of church courts?  But concerning the core of the gospel there is no disagreement:

– Jesus Christ is the Son of God become Incarnate among us.

– his death has effected atonement, making God and God’s estranged creation “at one”.

– the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the first “instalment” of God’s end-time  restoration when the creation will be freed from the last disfigurement of the Fall.

– the Holy Spirit is the power that Jesus Christ uniquely bears and uniquely bestows, and therefore the power by which all Christian proclamation, witness and discipleship are rendered credible and fruitful.

This is the core of the gospel.  All Christians — Quakers, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists — affirm it without qualification or reservation. There is no dispute concerning this.

When Paul writes to Timothy, a younger minister of the gospel, Paul reminds the young man that a trustworthy witness is someone who “rightly handles the word of truth.”  Two comments have to be made here.  To say that our task is to “handle rightly” the word of truth, only to handle it, is also to say by implication that we need not invent it or fashion it or fabricate it. In the second place, to handle rightly the word of truth is to admit that truth, by definition, cannot be invented. It is certainly possible to invent any number of falsehoods, but no one can ever invent truth. We can only recognize truth.


By God’s ordination the gospel, “our most holy faith”, is as true, lasting, unalterable, as the law of gravity (or any other unalterable aspect of a structured universe).  We speak incorrectly when we speak of law-breakers. People do not break laws; they break themselves over the law. We can never break the law of gravity; if we leap out of a tenth-storey window we merely confirm the law of gravity. In the same way there is a givenness to the gospel that is simply irrefrangible.

“Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.”  We do this as we saturate ourselves in the truth, wisdom, and promise of that gospel whose substance cannot be diluted and whose perdurability cannot be diminished.


II: — In the second place, says Jude, “Pray in the Holy Spirit.” To say that we are to pray in the Holy Spirit is to recognize that we live in a universe that is spirit-charged.

We have no difficulty understanding that we live in an environment that is charged with many different forces.         Physicists speak of the ‘force fields’ – many such – in the midst of which we live: gravity, light, magnetism, radiation, for instance. We live in a charged world.

Everyone knows we live as well in an environment that is electronically charged: radio, television, radar, satellites.

Radio programs and television programs are coursing through this room at this moment. Right now there is coursing through this room a gospel-sermon from a church in Hollywood as well as a display of pornography also from Hollywood . Which one are we going to bring in to our mind and heart? We aren’t going to bring in anything unless we are equipped to discern an electronically charged atmosphere; that is, unless we have the proper receptor.

Because humankind is most profoundly a creature of spirit (this is not to deny that we are creatures of body and mind); because we are most profoundly creatures of spirit we are born equipped with the capacity to “pick up” or “bring in” something of what surrounds us in a spirit-charged atmosphere.  The problem, of course, is that not all the spirits are holy.  Most are exceedingly unholy.  What’s more, in the wake of the Fall our natural spiritual receptor doesn’t discern the Holy Spirit. Our receptor has to be renewed. Then we must always pray for and pray in the Holy Spirit lest we become victimized (without even knowing it) by the spirits that are anything but holy.

To say that we are most profoundly creatures of spirit, and to say as well that we live in a spirit-charged atmosphere, is to say that the human heart is the site of spiritual conflict, the site of competing loyalties. The human heart is the site of stealthy commando operations (i.e., subtle spiritual sabotage) as well as frontal spiritual assaults. In view of the fact that the human heart is the prize territory that both the Holy Spirit and the unholy spirits ceaselessly contend for, the only sensible thing to do is to pray in the Holy Spirit.

In making this point let us be sure to emphasize something most strongly: to pray in the Holy Spirit is never to discount reason. If we are most profoundly creatures of spirit we are at the same time profoundly creatures of reason. Irrationality is never God-honouring. When people who are perplexed about some aspect of the Christian faith ask us earnestly for help in understanding, it is inexcusable to say to them, “Don’t try to understand; don’t even think about it; just pray about it.” To stifle reason or circumvent reason is to confuse faith with fanaticism and to foster folly. At the same time, when we have exercised our rationality to our utmost we must still pray in the Holy Spirit, for we are creatures of spirit ultimately.

Suppose we deny that we are creatures of spirit ultimately. (After all, we live in a secularized society that denies we are creatures of spirit.) We are then left saying that we are creatures of matterultimately.

There are two kinds of materialism. The philosophical kind (found, for instance, in Marxism) states that matter alone is.  The non-philosophical kind, the popular kind (found everywhere in the affluent Western world) states that matter alone matters. At the end of the day, both have the same force. Whether we believe that matter alone is or believe that matter alone matters, the “bottom line” is the same: we believe that we are creatures of matter ultimately.

But we aren’t. We are creatures of spirit ultimately. We are the venue of intense spiritual conflict; our hearts are the prize sought by warring spiritual forces.  Therefore the quintessentially human thing to do is pray. Then we must pray in the Holy Spirit, pray as believers in our Lord Jesus Christ (whose Spirit the Holy Spirit is), pray expecting to be given greater spiritual discernment as we pray ever more diligently.


III: — In the third place, says Jude, “Keep yourselves in the love of God.”  We are to keep ourselves in the love of God.

But doesn’t God love us regardless?  Won’t God always love us, continue to love us at all times and in all circumstances? Then what does Jude mean when he urges us to keep ourselves in the love of God?

Our question is answered as soon as we probe the writings of the apostle John. In the 15th chapter of John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” To abide in God’s love is to dwell in it, lodge in it, settle in it.

In everyday English to abide means to dwell. To abide in my home in Mississauga is to dwell in it. But in everyday English “abide” also has a second meaning: to abide by something is to obey it. In John 15 Jesus says, “If you keep (i.e., abide by my commandments you will abide in my love.” Only as we abide by can we abide in.

I abide in my wife’s love.  At the same time I’ve always known that I shall continue to abide in her love only as long as I abide by (obey) the claim to exclusivity essential to marriage. If I cease to abide by (obey) the claim to exclusivity essential to marriage, I shall cease to abide in her love. To be sure, she might continue to love me, but I would have ceased to “keep myself” in her love.

The false teachers of Jude’s day maintained that one could abide in Christ without having to abide by him. What they practised themselves they eagerly commended to others. They were false teachers. They weren’t merely false with respect to their teaching, however; they were false in themselves, phonies. They were deliberately deceptive; they flattered those they planned to exploit; they posed as visionaries; they twisted scripture; they described themselves as spiritual elitists when the only spirit to possess them was unholy.  In all of this they said we can abide in God’s love without having to abide by his claim upon our obedience.  Jude was outraged at these teachers who were false and fraudulent.

We are to keep ourselves in the love of God.  We do keep ourselves in the love of God as and only as we also keep his commandments.


IV: — Lastly Jude urges us to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”

In scripture to wait, wait for, never has the force of “waiting around”. To wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ never means that we loiter and loll, hands in our pockets, putting in time absent-mindedly while we wait we-don’t-know-for-what.

To wait, in scripture, is to anticipate; specifically it’s to anticipate confidently the public manifestation of that truth and reality which God’s people know to be operative now, even as it is denied by the world at large.

There is another way of saying the same thing.  The New Testament carefully balances the reality of Christ’s Easter triumph with the coming manifestation of that triumph. Our Lord has been raised from the dead. He is victor. His sovereign presence is a singular instance of God’s effectual mercy.

Christ’s people know this and rejoice in it. None of it, however, is publicly evident and therefore is publicly disputed.         For this reason we wait for its final manifestation.

In his letter to the church in Philippi the apostle Paul reminds us that every knee is going to bow eventually, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11) This is not to say that every last human being is going to come to a glad and grateful abandonment of herself to Jesus Christ as Lord; it isn’t to say that every last human being is going to delight in the praise of Christ’s truth and triumph. But it is to say that the day has been appointed when God can no longer be mocked. The day has been appointed when the gospel is vindicated and is seen to be what believers have always known it to be: God’s visitation of mercy for the world and the vehicle of believers’ restoration before him.  The day has been appointed when the simple faith of God’s people is vindicated too and these people are displayed before the world, no longer the silly fools that pseudo-sophisticates wrote off, but now those friends of Jesus who were unashamed of him for years and of whom he will now be unashamed eternally.

Several years ago I was the week-long bible teacher at a church camp near Perth , Ontario . At the camp I met several people who made my heart sing as they chatted informally with me in their quiet, unselfconscious way, of their faith in our Lord and the undeniable alteration of their lives that had arisen from it.  I shall never forget two such people.         I mention them in that they are contemporary illustrations of Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, mentioned in Acts 17 as two people who came to faith through Paul’s ministry in Athens . Dionysius and Damaris, a man and a woman, represented the two extremes of the social spectrum in ancient Athens . Dionysius came from the most exalted end of the social spectrum, Damaris from the most despised.

One man who spoke to me at the summer camp had been a professor of engineering at Oxford University . Subsequently he and his family lived in Canada for a year on an exchange with an engineering professor from Ottawa . While he was in Canada he came to faith in our Lord. Upon his return to England he offered himself as a candidate for the ministry of the British Methodist Church . The Methodist Church in England , however, having eroded theologically to the point of gospellessness, spoke with him through officials who sneered at his experience of God and ridiculed him. Whereupon he moved to Canada and became a minister of the gospel in a smaller denomination where he has remained ever since.

The other fellow I met in the same summer, from the other end of the social spectrum, is a used-car salesman of very limited formal education, missing several teeth, who enjoys a great deliverance from years of substance abuse. In ungrammatical English but with utter transparency he spoke to me of the huge turnaround in his life and all that it has meant for his family.

These people are alike “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They aren’t waiting around. They are busy day-in and day-out at the tasks to which the master has assigned them. Nevertheless, they are anticipating that day when, in the mercy of God, the world’s delusion ends and the gospel is vindicated and God’s people are exalted and the faith of the simplest saint is seen to be what the saint herself always knew it to be: the bond that bound her to that Lord who will henceforth honour her eternally.


Then what are the people in Schomberg to be about week-in and week-out?

Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.

Pray in the Holy Spirit.

Keep Yourselves in the love of God.

Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Victor Shepherd

May 2011

For the Saints in Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Schomberg