Communion and children

Preached on: Sunday 11th September 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 22-09-11 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Exodus 12:1-3, 21-27; Luke 22:7-8, 13-20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Communion: proclaiming the death of Jesus
– Communion: more than a mere memorial
– Communion: for our children

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the Word of God.
Come Holy Spirit among us and deepen our understanding of Your Word.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

So, we conclude our series today on Covenants and Sacraments and we’ve been exploring the Biblical foundation for our tradition, that sees children are sharing in the covenants and so, that baptism is then fitting for both children and adults because we understand it to speak more of God’s promise than our response and I must say I’ve had more interaction and comments on this series than probably any series in the last three and a half years. More comments on the door, more emails, more messages which has been lovely. Both those who have resonated with it and those who found it a real challenge and sometimes even disagreed with it. And so, I wonder if you might turn to your neighbor for 30 seconds in a moment and share with them one word to summarize your response so far. Has it been challenging? Hard? Boring? Unhelpful? Hopefully not those two but encouraging. What, however it might be 30 seconds. Over to you just now.

Well, sounds like there’s a lot of interesting words probably out there. Do pick up those conversations and maybe afterwards over a tea and coffee or here in the sanctuary if you’re able to linger for a little bit.

I’ll say at the start, as I’ve said each of the weeks we’ve looked at this, the aim of this series is not necessarily to convince you to change your mind but at least to raise questions. Questions to explore. Maybe to bring a word of challenge, that we might follow through the logic of our theology which I’m not sure we’ve always done. But, at least, to create, maybe create space for a range of practice particularly around Communion, because it was Communion and the idea of children sharing in Communion that really kick-started all this. Our Kirk Session reaffirmed the desire to allow children to share in Communion and to be much more proactive about that than we have been since we took a vote on it some 20 odd years ago or such like, but how the Kirk Session also wanted teaching on Communion before we embark on that and, as I’ve said in preparation, it seemed that we needed a much wider understanding so that we could eventually get to this week to understand well, not only what is Communion, but why would we allow children to be involved.

So, what is Communion about? What is its symbolism meant to convey to us? Well, our reading today from Luke’s gospel took us back to that moment when Jesus instituted Communion for the first time with His disciples. That original moment of institution and we read earlier ‘Then came the day of unleavened bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John saying ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover,’’ And we know from our reading that they do so and they go together to share in the Passover meal as part of the wider Passover festival that was a week long and, within that context, Jesus institutes Communion. And so, the context is Passover. That meal that was both a looking back and a looking forward. A looking back to what God had done that He had delivered Israel from captivity, that a life had been given, blood had been spilled, the Passover lamb, so that the judgment of God might pass over the Israelites and without that they would have been just as much in danger. But it was also all looking forward, a looking forward to when God would deliver His people more widely through the Messiah and that was a great hope and expectation of God’s people. And so, it’s into this context that Jesus institutes Communion. A new memorial meal. And so, the symbolism of Passover carries then into Communion as well. Jesus said a little later in the same passage ‘This is my body given for you. This cup is a new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.’ Just as the life of the Passover lamb was given, so Jesus’ life is given for us, to save us, that the judgment of God might pass over us. After all, in the New Testament we read in Romans 6 that ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our lord.’ Paul will go on to say in first Corinthians 5 that Jesus is our Passover lamb. He makes that very clear using those exact words and it leads them a little later on in the same passage same letter to say ‘Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ And so, when we gather to share in Communion, we gather to proclaim His death and what He has done, that He has saved us, that He is the means by which this new covenant is established, this new covenant that replaces the old Mosaic covenant, but which does not undo but rather builds upon that covenant made with Abraham, that we saw in week one, that promise that He made, that God would have a people of His own. I wonder, as we celebrated last week The Lord’s Supper, did we bear that in mind? Did we bear in mind that, in some ways, it’s not all about us, maybe in many ways it’s not all about us? Actually, it’s about Jesus. It’s about proclaiming that good news. It’s about making that known and marveling afresh, that in grace, we would receive a Saviour and that we would be included in His covenant, undeserving as we are, He includes us, He dies for us.

I wonder if we know that and own that, when we share in the sacrament? Yet, is Communion more than just a remembering, is it more than a mere memorial? Is it just about remembering or proclaiming? Well, Paul will say in first Corinthians as well, he writes quite a lot in there about the Passover and Communion he says that because there’s one bread, we are one body and so, it reminds us of our unity, Also, we saw in our passage from Jesus saying that He won’t share in this meal until the fulfillment of the kingdom. And that’s picked up in the Revelation 19 where we see that future banquet, that God’s people will share in. And so, Communion points us forward, just like Passover did as well. So, it is more than mere memorial, bringing these parts in and yet we can say more even still.

And this is where we’re going to maybe diverge a little, depending on your background and tradition, because within what Jesus said is understood to be a promise. Jesus said ‘This is my body.; This is my body. And, as we heard last week, thinking about sacraments within our reformed tradition, a sacrament was understood to be an outward sign of a promise from God. And the promise for Communion is this promise, ‘this is my body.’ There is a lot of room for misunderstanding this and some of our denominations go down very different tracks from where we go, in the wider reformed tradition, not just of the Church of Scotland. Many congregations would see themselves as holding to how we interpret this, for we do not interpret this literally, and so, when we share Communion, it’s not the literal body and blood of Jesus, nor is Jesus behind the elements somehow, as some traditions would have it, but that, as we share in these visible signs, they’re signs pointing us to Jesus, pointing us to this fulfillment that, as we share in Communion, He is here by the Spirit, He’s in our midst. And so, as bread and wine nurture the body, Jesus, by His Spirit, nurtures our soul. And so, those signs point us to Him so that, in faith, we receive from Him and are nourished.

Now, I wonder whether that’s where some of our practice around Communion might come. Sometimes, we seem to be very overly serious at times and maybe it’s because of this promise, this understanding, but let’s remember too that Jesus is also present when we pray, Jesus is present in worship, that He’s amongst us when two or three gather, He’s amongst us as He inhabits the praises of His people, He’s amongst us as we read His Word. So. He’s amongst us in all these ways, to sustain our faith and to build us up and maybe, maybe it’s part of this that leads us in a reluctance to change. I’m not sure, but we can at least say that Communion is more than a memorial, it’s more than just a looking back and I think many of us could testify to a benefit when we share in Communion that, not only do we remember, but we also feel that benefit because upon our consciences, within our souls, is affirmed that Jesus died for us and so God loves me. Jesus died for us and so we are united. Jesus died for the redemption of all things and so that the kingdom will be all, in all one day, Communion is a very rich and meaningful gift from God not just to look back but to bless us, sustain us, as we rightfully proclaim His death.

So, what about children? And all of this and the benefits that we receive and what we mark and what we proclaim? What about children? Should they share in it? If so, is there a certain age? Do they need to have a measure of understanding around Communion? Let me be clear, that any change of practice, whatever we do in church, whatever we do should not be because of sentimentality or because something just seems like a nice idea, and particularly with something that means so much to us, we should do it because of the Scriptures, of following through the logic of our theology, of it contributing to the purposes of God amongst us.

And so, what then might be the grounds for including children and sharing Communion? Well, Jesus said ‘This is my body given for you.’ Was the body of Jesus given for our children? We’ve been saying over the last two weeks, that children share in the new covenant and so Jesus gave His body for them as well. That would be one reason to include our children in Communion. Communion, as we saw, also replaced Passover and Passover, as we read, was a meal that the family would share in and children would be present and so, carrying over that should mean then that children might share in Communion, that God wouldn’t necessarily change His practice with the change from one to the other. Now, some might say ‘Well, I don’t read in the New Testament anywhere of children sharing in Communion.’ and that’s a fair point, however, I’d respond to you and say ‘Well, there’s no mention of women sharing in Communion either, so we’re going to follow through that logic.’ Probably not. No, unless any of you are up for a real fight. Now, we might then reach a point where we say ‘Okay, okay, maybe children should be involved for those reasons but what age? What age, Scott? Do they need a level of understanding, a level of cognition about this because, after all, it’s a serious matter, it’s an important thing we do?’ And it is an important thing. Jesus says ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Paul says in first Corinthians that we have to examine ourselves and discern the body of Christ. We might ask ‘Well, can children do those things? Can they?’ Well, let’s think about these lines a little bit more. Jesus does say ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ and those words are quoted in and all the Gospels in one way or another, and by Paul in first Corinthians chapter 11. It’s interesting though, that when Paul writing in first Corinthians 11 quotes that he then concludes his writing of it in that little portion by equaling remembrance with proclamation. I wonder if we misread into remembrance that it’s all about memory? Remembrance can also mean proclaiming. Proclaiming this rather than it being sidelined, rather than it being neglected that, actually, it’s to be central to our life, it’s to be central to our message that is what’s to be core to us as a church. And there’s another point; we read this line very individualistically even, because that is our culture but, in the day of the early church, in the day of Israel with Passover or Communion, they were a much more communal society and so, maybe, they understood these words in a much more collective manner that, together, we share in Communion, that together we proclaim the Lord’s death, not necessarily just at the individual level and so, as long as we’re doing that together, we would be doing justice to the words of Jesus because, let’s remember too, that Passover was a remembrance and a proclamation and yet children were involved, involved from such a young age that the passage suggests they’ll come eventually to ask you ‘Why? What does this ceremony mean to you?’ They’re involved before they even understand but able to see that something is meant by this and so, they ask the question. So, I think there are grounds for children still being allowed to share in Communion without necessarily setting a benchmark because of this particular verse And, if we are going to set a benchmark that remembrance means we must understand and we must have a level of cognition, then what are we going to do with those amongst us who suffer from dementia? Are you going to go and ask them, well, what does Communion mean to you and, if they can’t give you a certain answer, are you going to bar them, are you going to cut them out? Why is it one rule for the adults and one rule for the children? And now, you might say to them well, you might say to me ‘Well, Scott, they’ve shown a life of faith so why would you just turn them away now?’ Well, what is faith? Faith is a sign that you share in the new covenant and haven’t we been saying that our children, the children of believers, share in the new covenant? Or what about Paul’s words in first Corinthians 11 about examining and discerning? Well, if you read around that passage, you’ll see that Paul gives that to correct sinful behavior. He doesn’t give it so as to exclude individuals or exclude children. It’s to discern, not the meaning of the sacrament, but that we are family, we are part of the body together and we have to examine the sin that exists between one another because of that sinfulness. That’s what we have to examine. And so, I don’t think, either in the words of Jesus or the words of Paul, that we shouldn’t preclude children from sharing in Communion. I don’t think we should set a bar for their entry necessarily, because, otherwise, entrance then becomes based on our understanding rather than upon grace, and wouldn’t we be potentially also stunting their faith, their growth of faith. We’ve remarked about the Queen’s life of faith, of faith that she came to have and own for herself in her early years so that, the moment that she became Queen, she could see it as a calling from God,

and then she followed through that faith all her days until the very end. And don’t we want that for our kids? Don’t we want to remove every hindrance to them and give them every opportunity to grow in that faith? It’s been said through various bits of research that everyone, adults and children alike, have different ways of meeting with God. Some of us are very word orientated and that if we’re not that doesn’t mean you should neglect the Bible but it means you might resonate with it a little bit less. Some of us are very service oriented or emotion orientated but others of us are very symbol orientated. It’s partly why we started lighting a candle during lockdown, to give that symbolic meaning of God amongst us. But children can be very symbolic in their learning of faith. In the practice of doing, they learn by doing. And, as a church, as a reformed church, we don’t really do symbolism much, do we? How much symbolism do we talk about or point our children to, really. The one symbol, beyond lighting a candle, is Communion and yet we bar them from it. And so, are we stunting their growth somehow, because we won’t allow them to come, for whatever reason. I worry that we’re stunting their growth.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I think we’re still on a journey. I don’t assume or conclude that I’ve necessarily convinced you and, as I say, I’m not seeking to convince you but, at least, to give you a measure of reassurance, hopefully, that there’s good grounds of this, Biblical grounds for allowing this change, I do think that we should be force feeding our children. So, just in case you’re wondering what does this lead to? I’m not advocating that we force feed our children and not to force feed an infant but I would, following the logic of our theology, I would say, as soon as a child seeks to share in the sacrament why not? Why not? They’re part of the new covenant and so let them share. But this will be a very personal and family-based decision. And that’s good, and right. And, okay, we’re not advocating that we have a uniform approach. Actually, maturity is not necessarily about uniformity. But I’m saying, you know, there is variance of understanding around baptism, about Communion, and can we hold that variance and tension, in unity, and so, allow space for a bit of both-and rather than either-or?

Now, I say, we’re still on a journey. I think there’ll be many questions because I’m sure I could have been clearer or more helpful. Looking forward to those questions. I had already put in a diary a meeting with the Sunday School leaders for the 27th of September but I think it might be of benefit to open that out. And so, if you would like to come and ask questions, wrestle through this a bit more, then come, come to that meeting. We’ll put it in the notices from next week. Ahead of December Communion, if we’re still aiming for then as an all-age Communion, I’d like to produce some materials to help families, to explain this to their children because understanding is not unimportant. Understanding is not unimportant. It’s just not the benchmark. The benchmark should be Jesus and what He has done and whether we share, and what He has done and, as I say, I think our children do and so, if we do go ahead with an all-age Communion in December, some materials for families might be helpful. But I think also, during that Communion, I recognize that there might be families that think well. I don’t want our children yet to share in it, but maybe we could offer a blessing, a prayer of blessing for the children, as adults, taking part in Communion so that no one is left out, that they still receive from God.

We’re still on our journey and I’ve tried to help us understand the tradition we share in and why, then, it might, following through that logic through, say that children should share in both sacraments. Hopefully we’ve seen its biblical basis. Hopefully we’ve seen how it still promotes grace alone, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But whether you’re convinced or not, I hope that we all grow in our confidence of God’s saving purposes and provision through Jesus, and maintain that bond of unity and peace for, as Paul says, because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all, and to Him be the glory, now and forever, Amen.

Theology of children

Preached on: Sunday 4th September 2022
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here22-09-04 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Genesis 15:1-6 and Romans 4:1-16
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Sermon keypoints:
– Theology of children
– Sacraments: signs and seals of God’s promise
– Baptism and the response of faith

Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word:

Come Holy Spirit and soften our hearts to the Word of God.
Come Holy Spirit to mature and strengthen our faith.
Come Holy Spirit with power and deep conviction, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

We’re in this new series on Covenants and sacraments and last week we began by exploring a range of scriptures that point to and give a basis to our tradition that we understand children to share in the covenants, and this week builds on that and we also get onto talking about the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of baptism and I must admit that I come before you with a degree of trepidation, apprehension, a measure of internal trembling because today, we touch upon holy things, holy things. I’m also aware that we touch upon things that we might see differently upon and I dearly hope that we maintain unity through all. I’m not wanting to do otherwise. I’m aware I can easily get this wrong. I’m trying prayerfully not to, because I’m still on a journey, I’m still seeking clarity, I’m still asking questions and so, really, I’m sharing with you as far as I’ve got in my understanding of things. Let me reiterate what I said last week, I’m not necessarily trying to convince you to change rather, I was seeking, through this series together, as a measure of assurance, hopefully, that the transition we find ourselves in, the changes that might come in the months ahead, are biblically grounded and, if we are convinced, then to have even a measure of confidence about what we propose to do as we understand the place and inclusion of children within the life of the church, but also within the covenants. And so within access to the sacraments I said last week at the very end that I’m sure last week raised questions for us, questions I didn’t have time to get into and I will seek to engage with them this week and next, though I’ll give you a heads-up, I might not give you the answer you’re looking for and partly the reason for that is, I think we need to accept there’s a degree of mystery here, and I say that because what we’re going to get into is a Theology of Children really. I’m not sure that scripture always asks the questions we do and I think partly the reason for that is, within scripture I increasingly see that thread of covenant, of covenant theology woven in the scriptures and so it assumes various conclusions or reaches various conclusions because of that theology and so, as I say, it doesn’t raise the questions we do, it doesn’t even use the language that we do at times, particularly when it comes to our children.

And so, at the heart, as we think about the place of children, about the meaning of the sacraments, about the right and proper recipients of the sacraments, baptism and communion, at the heart of it is our theology of children and particularly the theology of children of believers because that’s what the scripture addresses and that can be very emotive.

And so, I first want us to focus on that and then from there go on to think about baptism and what baptism means in our tradition, which might be different from where you’re coming from, if you’ve come from another tradition and so, I want to take us to a range of different places where I see this thread of covenant woven through the scriptures.

First off, and we’re going to go into the Old Testament to begin, to that point in the Old Testament story where David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and a son was born to them but that son dies and in this, probably the hours or days following that, in his season of grief David says this ‘Can I bring him back again? (the answer being no) ‘I will go to him but he will not return to me.’ I will go to him but he will not return to me. We see here in David’s words that he has a theology, an understanding, a belief in the eternal life, that there’s life beyond death and that this child, he has lost, he will go to be with. There’s no question around that in his mind. It is sure, guaranteed. What gives him such confidence? Well, the only thing it can be is the covenant, that children shared in the covenant.

And, if you don’t know my story, then this is not hypothetical for us. This is not a lecture in an ivory tower because, just ten days ago, Gill and I marked the seventh anniversary of our first son. This is not hypothetical. So, if children are not in the covenant and then they don’t somehow share in God’s saving provision then there’s really very little comfort.

Last week I quoted Wayne Grudem a number of times and his Systematic Theology is excellent in many ways but I went back to it this week as I approached this issue and this idea of trying to understand the theology of children and, literally, there is scant, scant comfort or hope given about our children. It’s almost a bit of a wish rather than any confidence.

So, as we think through the place of children, we do need to think about that dynamic because no one shares in the life eternal except through Jesus.

So, what about the children of believers? Or, let’s go into the New Testament where in Ephesians Paul is writing to the church and not only does he address the whole body of believers, he talks to children saying ‘Obey your parents and The Lord, for this is right’ and he goes on to quote a law from the Old Testament. Then he addresses fathers, really parents in general, ‘Do not exasperate your children instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of The Lord.’ Now, again, if children are outside the covenant and somehow, they don’t share in the things of the Kingdom what are we trying to instruct them in and train them in? Because, if it’s trying to follow the ways of Jesus, if it’s trying to live out for example the Sermon on the Mount, as we’ve just looked at, then all you’re teaching them, all you’re doing to them, is putting a millstone around their neck. And here’s why: not one of us, adult or child, can walk in the ways of the Kingdom without the Spirit’s help. Various scriptures around that. So, if we are trying to teach our children to walk in the way of The Lord, and they have no chance to do so because they don’t belong in the covenant, it’s just a millstone round their neck. And it goes into various other aspects. It should not only reshape our thinking around what we do in Sunday School, it should reshape our thinking around the songs we sing or the prayers we teach them. Over the summer we sang a song at the early service ‘This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine’, if they don’t have the light of Jesus, they shouldn’t be singing that song. We shouldn’t be teaching them to pray in the name of Jesus because, when we say in the name of Jesus, Amen, it’s not some magic words to get what we want. When we say in the name of Jesus, we’re saying before God, I don’t come in my own merit, I’ve not earned this, I don’t even deserve to be heard, but only because of Jesus, because I share in His righteousness can I come before you my Holy God with confidence. The writer to Hebrews says ‘with confidence, with boldness because of Jesus.’ No child who’s outside the covenant can pray in Jesus’ name and genuinely say those words. If children are outside the covenant, the only things we should teach them are God and His character, the history of His dealings with God’s people, that they’re a bunch of sinners, they need forgiven and that forgiveness is provided by Jesus and they need to repent, and until they do so, well, you can follow the dots in that line.

I think that is literally where it leads us if we follow the logic of our theology of children through, but covenant theology says differently. They’re part of the covenant and so they somehow share in the things of the Kingdom and we can instruct them from the earliest of ages to walk in the ways of The Lord.

And let’s go on to one of the gospels. Jesus says ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ It’s interesting that Matthew omits what the other gospel writers include, where He basically alludes to having child-like faith. Matthew excludes that. Why? Well, Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, predominantly, a Jewish audience, who would what? Understand the covenants and that children are included in the covenants. And so, Jesus says ‘The kingdom of heaven belongs to these children.’ You’re bringing to me babes in arms and beyond, because they share in the covenant already. Children do not share in the covenant because they’re children, none, no one does by right of birth or anything just by being a child. We share in the covenant because God invites us to be part of that covenant and He includes His children. And I had not seen that until this week, until I was pondering how to explain this and how to give us assurance that there is this thread of covenant theology across the scriptures, it’s there in the words of Jesus as well. I think often when we come to a theology of children, we develop quite an individualistic, western perspective on it and so, when we raise questions about children, about their place within God’s saving purposes, I want their place within the covenant. I’m not sure scripture answers the questions as directly as we’d like or in the language that we’d like and I have avoided certain language and avoided answering your questions a bit directly because I’m not sure the Scriptures do it but they give us these hints that children are included in the covenant and it’s there much more plainly in what we looked at last week, and maybe our forefathers, in the reformed faith, got into a bit of trickiness and developed very complicated systems because they felt a pressure to answer the questions rather than except there’s a degree of mystery. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know exactly what it means but, as I look at the thread across the Scriptures, increasingly, increasingly I’m convinced of children sharing in the covenant.

And so, what is your theology of children? Are they inside or are they outside? They might come to church and we might say that, yes, you’re part of the church, but really we’re just saying they’re part of the organization, the community, they don’t really belong to God’s people until they’ve confirmed that, expressed that in some way, until they can give the answer you’re looking for. And so, I asked you to follow through the logic of your theology and what would give you comfort in the face of grief, what would guide you and how to disciple our children if you don’t hold to this? I’m not saying you have to hold it, I’m not saying that but might we create space to say ‘I can see where you’re coming from, Scott’, you can see where others are coming from. I might not agree to that, I can’t get to that place yet, but we can have space for one another?

Now, what I’m outlining is part of the tradition we are part of but it’s not just about sacraments, it’s also just not about covenants, it’s also about sacraments and in our tradition, we have two sacraments, baptism and communion. And communion we’ll celebrate in this morning and we’ll think a little bit about that when it comes but much more next week. Today the focus is really on baptism. We might be wondering ‘Well, why do we use the words ‘sacraments’? What is a sacrament?’ because it’s not a Biblical word. But then again, neither is Trinity so, just because it’s not in the Bible doesn’t mean we don’t use it. It points to something, it’s shorthand for something. John Calvin, in his writing, that great reformer said ‘A sacrament is an outward sign by which The Lord seals on our consciences the promises of His good will towards us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.’ So, sacrament is an outward sign, a visible pointing to a promise, to give us assurance, greater reassurance, greater confidence and a promise, and we’ll get to that, what that promises in a moment when we’re thinking about baptism.

If we’re trying to think ‘Well, what happens in baptism or what is the symbolism of baptism conveying?’ When you turn to the New Testament scriptures it’s not as clear as you might think. It’s not as clear as you might think and I want to give you a few examples of that, or one example really. Romans chapter 6 verse 3 Paul says a little after what we looked at this morning ‘Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus, were baptized into his death.’ There are three ways, at least, of interpreting this verse and the first two I would argue are wrong.

So, for example, number one, you might read this and say ‘Well clearly this is saying when we’re baptized, that’s when we’re saved, that’s when we’re baptized into Jesus and sharing His death, that’s when we’re saved.’ And so, maybe we should say that baptism saves you. When, either as a child or an adult, that’s when you’re saved based on one interpretation of this verse. However, that would be slightly problematic for all the people who are Christians but never been baptized. Or take the thief on the cross, hanging on the cross beside Jesus on Calvary’s hill. Is he baptized before he was saved? And Jesus says to him ‘You’ll share this day in the kingdom of God.’ Clearly not so. That interpretation cannot be right. Baptism does not save us.

Interpretation number two, maybe more of a kind of Baptist interpretation we might say or that broad kind of line of thought, that this is talking about baptism portraying our dying with Jesus and our being raised to life with Jesus. And, in part, we can understand that symbolism however that’s not what Paul says. He says ‘all of us who were baptized.’ So, something happened to us. It’s not just portraying something. Something happened in a baptism and we were baptized into His death and every Baptist is going to react and push against that interpretation because of problem number one. Baptism doesn’t save us. So, this verse is not about the act of baptism, it’s rather pointing to the spiritual dynamics of what happens when we come to faith. That when we come to faith it is like being baptized and we’ll talk about what baptism is in a second. And so, it’s that spiritual metaphor that Paul’s getting at. He’s not actually talking about the act of baptism and there are a number of verses, particularly in the epistles, where Paul talks about baptism, but he’s not talking about the act of baptism, he’s talking about what happened when you came to faith, it was like being baptized, in that moment, it’s what he’s getting at. And so, we have to be careful about the text we use to understand what happens in baptism and what the symbolism of baptism means and, if we make baptism about our faith, about our response of faith, it also leads into other problems because then, in one part you could argue it’s more about us and our response than what we argue for in reformed faith, where it’s everything’s to the glory of God.

There are other dynamics and other issues but I don’t have time to get into them but just some food for thought. So, what is baptism symbolizing. Well, in Acts we read of this and Paul is recounting some of his story and someone said to Paul, ‘Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name again.’ Baptism doesn’t save so that’s not what this verse is saying, but, clearly, baptism is a symbolism of sins being washed away through Jesus. It’s speaking of our spiritual need and of that need being met through Jesus, The Lord. And, you know, that’s the very same thing that circumcision was trying to communicate. Paul, in the passage we read today, said ‘Abraham received circumcision as a sign and a seal.’ There’s that language of John Calvin, a sign and a seal, ‘of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised in order that righteousness might be credited to them.’ We saw in the passage in Genesis that, right, Abraham was credited with righteousness because he believed God, and we know from last week, that is in chapter 17, we get the sign of circumcision so he’s made right with God, he’s forgiven, he’s cleansed of his sins before he ever gets circumcision. That’s what Paul’s argument is here. And so, circumcision was a sign and a seal that righteousness, God will give righteousness, on the basis of faith. That’s the promise John Calvin spoke of. A promise, that’s the promise that circumcision pointed to and because circumcision and baptism are conveying the same thing, that’s what baptism conveys as well. They’re both talking about being forgiven, made right with God, of being washed of your sin, based on the promise of God to forgive, on the basis of faith and they point to that internal need and God’s promise to do so, to forgive, to make you right in faith.

And so, sacraments are signs and seals of God’s promises pointing to God’s promise and of our need. In our tradition baptism is not our response of faith, baptism is pointing to our need and God’s promise to meet that need when there’s faith and actually, then, children and adults in our tradition are baptized for the same reason. They’re not. But an adult is not baptized because of their response of faith, just like our children, when we baptize, we’re saying there is this need, a spiritual need to be made right with God and He will, He has promised to meet that need. He extends that promise to us and to our children and so baptism is more about speaking to us, God speaking to us, than us speaking to God. And maybe, that’s new for you. Maybe you’ve never heard it explained that way because, to be honest, prior to I did all this research, neither had I. Even in my training I don’t think anyone had conveyed it in quite those terms. And, as I say, I’m not convincing you to change your mind upon that, but trying to help you understand where others of us are coming from. But I think there are benefits in viewing baptism this way because the focus is less on ourselves and more on God, more on His promise which is given, not only to us, but to our children.

But some of you will be saying ‘Well, what about faith? Where’s faith play a part in all this.’ And our tradition does not deny the place of faith, it affirms the place of faith. That faith is still central. It’s initiated by faith, a parent, parents come with a child, a babe in arms, to say, I have faith in this promise of God to meet the needs of my child, that somehow, by grace, they are included in the covenant. I don’t know how. I don’t, can’t explain that there’s mystery but, but that’s what Your Word shows. Lord, I come in faith.’ But as a child grows, we call forth a response of faith, to say, ‘Own this! You’re in it, own it. You’ve got the membership but you need to share in that. You need to own it. There’s no point in just having the card to whatever and never going there,’ if you want to put it in such crass term, ‘you need to own it, respond in faith, accept the gift.’ But, as with all of God’s covenants, there’s not only the gift, there’s also the obligation.

I was having a really great chat with one of our members this week and he was emphasizing to me the need for holiness and the response of faith, to live in holiness. The blessings of Jesus don’t come just as blessings, there are also obligations, there’s a call to holiness. Do you know that brothers and sisters? There are obligations as well as blessings.’ And the same is true for our children. And so, we train them in the ways of the Kingdom. We help them understand the things of The Lord and to grow in that and to walk in that. We call forth faith.

But there is another side, a side we’ve often avoided, I think, a side which we’ve shied away from and which has probably meant why our pews are more empty than they maybe should be, of all those children who were baptized in infancy but maybe, now, have walked away because we haven’t shared the other side. We’ve shared the love of God, we’ve shared the Good News, we’ve shared that they can be forgiven through Jesus. All those good things and blessings but there’s another side. There’s a warning and consequences, an obligation and we find it in a number of places within the New Testament. Paul again, writing in Romans, has a picture, describes a picture in chapter 11 of an olive tree and he uses this picture of the olive tree to speak of Israel often, because the Old Testament did that as well, and he says that the people of God are this olive tree but some did not respond in faith, they trusted more in circumcision, they trusted more in their nationality and ethnicity, they didn’t respond in faith to the sign that was given and God has actually broken them off, cut them off from the olive tree,,
and he says then that you’ve been grafted in, new Gentile believers, which includes us to this very day, because I don’t think any of us are Jewish, we are those Gentile believers and we have been grafted in he says in romans 11. But he goes on to say this ‘Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God. Sternness to those who fell away,’ those who were cut off, because they didn’t respond in faith ‘but kindness to you because you have responded in faith,’ and you’ve been grafted in, ‘provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.’ And that warning, that obligation to continue in faith, to persevere in faith until the very end, until we share in the Kingdom of Heaven fully, it’s there in Hebrews. Too many verses to utilize and quote today but go and look. That warning that if we take lightly the death of Jesus, if we shun the death of Jesus and turn from Jesus, if we trample underfoot the blood of Jesus, then then, we become a covenant breaker and we’re not sharing that covenant anymore. And I’m not saying that your children who were baptized and are no longer part of church, I’m not saying that they’ve reached that point because only we’ll know before the judgment seat of God but that might be the trajectory they’re on, because we haven’t warned them, we haven’t said, you’re in the kingdom, you’re in the covenant, it’s all of grace by faith, it’s nothing to do with you, it’s not magic because of baptism, you’re in there, respond in faith but keep on in faith because of the warnings we read in Scripture and we’ve ignored that, we’ve turned from that because it’s hard, it’s really hard, and I think of members of my family who are no longer children and I’m their child, and I think ‘Well, where are you in the faith?’ Maybe I need to take this on board and I need to go and have a conversation with those members of my family saying ‘Look, look have you turned from Jesus?’

So, faith is everywhere in this tradition. It’s initiated by faith or calls forth a response of faith and there’s an ongoing faith, both for our children but for us as well, that faith till the very end and Paul has various, numerous various references to that too. Go on and read the Scriptures afresh and you’ll see it dotted throughout. Because faith is central and our tradition does not deny that faith in God and His promise, a promise He extends to all, including our children, so that by grace, unearned, unmerited we share in His covenant and saving provision.

This is our God our glorious, loving, faithful, good God, that I’m more passionate about than ever, because I see this in the Scriptures, I want you to share in that confidence or at least that reassurance, that we’re not against one another, we’re not wanting disunity but that we can understand and make space for one another and it’s all to the glory of God now and forevermore. Amen.

Devoted to teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer

Preached on: Sunday 17th February 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-02-17-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon-website.
Bible references: Acts 2:42-47
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Acts 2:42-47
Sunday 17th February 2019
Brightons Parish ChurchJesus said, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Matt. 22:37-39)

With our young people I began to unpack that, love for God and for one another was central to the early Church, so much so that even in their changing circumstances they prioritised certain practices and were devoted to doing them, because, as we saw last week, they wanted to live for Jesus and play their part in His continuing ministry; they were convinced He was alive and so, they wanted to know more of His life for themselves and be a conduit of His life to others.

Over the years it transformed the world – in a relatively short space of time, the early church came to be envied by the Roman authorities for how extravagantly they showed love to neighbour, no matter creed, colour or class.

And the result was this: “…the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) The growth of the Christian faith was phenomenal, not only here at the birth of the church but across the early centuries. Yet does this phrase mean that these Christians simply stayed at home? Does it mean that they played no part in these historical changes coming to fruition? Of course not – the verses we will look at in a moment, as well as the rest of Acts, if not the rest of the New Testament,… make it very clear that individual Christians and the Christian community as a whole play a key role, that what we do, what you and I do, is of great importance. If Brightons Parish Church is to have a vibrant future, and if that is to overflow into our community, such that our community thrives as well – then we all (we all) have a part to play in that; we all do need to do certain things, as we’ll see today and next week.

But before we get practical, notice this: “…the Lord added to their number” – “…the Lord added to their number” – the early church knew that any life, any growth, any success, any vibrancy, any positive impact upon its own members and then the surrounding community was a result of the Lord being active in and amongst them,… and so, they made it clear in their account: “…the Lord added to their number.”

Maybe it’s because of this conviction that the author of Acts sandwiches the stuff we like: the miracles, the great feats of love, the joy, the incredible growth in numbers – the author sandwiches all these things that we’d love to see, between two key statements: “They devoted themselves to……[and] the Lord added to their number.” The start and the end go hand in hand, because the top list is like the four wheels of a car – without those four wheels, the car won’t move, or with some wheels missing it will only bump and grind along the road, but never reach its full potential, never seeing the distance and destination it could reach with all four wheels.

Or it’s like me trying to make my favourite cake – Chocolate Guinness Cake (and yes, I can make it) – it’s like me trying to make that cake without chocolate, Guinness, bicarbonate of soda or cream cheese: any Chocolate Guinness cake that doesn’t include those things is going to be dull and flat, lacking life and lacking all the good stuff that makes me want to keep it to myself!

With baking and cars we know that we need the whole package, but when it comes to church we somehow think we can have one without the other – we want the miracles, the great feats of love, the joy, the incredible growth in numbers – but we’d rather leave the other stuff to the “spiritual people” or “religious people” or the minister. So, please here me clearly on this: we will never get the good life, without the Good Lord; we will never get the good life, without the Good Lord.
If we want vibrancy in Brightons Parish Church, and if we want that vibrancy to overflow to the community, such that it blesses and benefits the community, and if we want people out there to think church might be relevant, then we each, individually, must know and walk with the Good Lord – because when we do that, His life, His power, His love, His grace will flow into our lives and overflow into the lives of the wider community. It’s simply how it works: we will never get the good life, without the Good Lord.

So, our passage today is not complex or even hard to understand, and many of the ideas and terms you will be familiar with. In some ways, I probably could end the sermon here and leave the rest up to you…but I love to learn, and consequently, I love to give others the opportunity to learn and grow as well.
So, in the time remaining, I am going to try and limit what I say, and give you as much of the remaining time to chat amongst yourselves. My idea is that this week we’ll focus on verse 42, and next week we’ll cover the other verses. Hopefully you’re up for giving that a try for these two weeks, and then we’ll go back to me talking for twenty minutes. Sound fair enough?

So, v42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

But what do these terms mean for us today?

• Firstly, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching: they learnt about Jesus and His ways. We can do that a little through Sunday worship,..
but we each need more, and so today, maybe you should consider starting to read your Bible more regularly, and if you need help with that, then the discipleship team have daily reading notes available in the vestibule after today’s service.

• Secondly, they devoted themselves to fellowship: the word for fellowship here is “koinonia” and its basic idea is “sharing” – sharing in life together. How can we do that with one another? Maybe join a fellowship group; or maybe get involved in active service in this church and next week we’ll hopefully have a vacancy list to help with that. Or help with the Easter Fun Day.

• Thirdly, they devoted themselves to the breaking of bread: they shared in communion,…

they came back to the Cross time and time again. Here we only celebrate that a handful of times a year, so please try and be here for it.

• Lastly, they devoted themselves to prayer: they prayed; again and again throughout Acts we see that the early church prayed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is quoted as saying this: “there has never, to the best of my knowledge, been a revival in the church that did not begin with a renewal of prayer.” We never get the good life, without the Good Lord, and that’s so true of prayer. For us, that could mean coming to the Thursday evening prayer meeting. Or you could come to the Sunday evening services, because this year I’m thinking our theme for them will be prayer.

So, now it’s over to you – I’d like to give you the remaining time in small groups to talk about what it might look like for you to be devoted to Jesus through these things, to know and walk with the Good Lord. If you like, one idea is to start the conversation with the category you are weakest at – but whatever you do, try to come up with one or two things you personally could do differently so as to love the Lord a little more with your heart and soul and mind. So, over to you.


Friends, we obviously have not had time to think about all the ways we could apply these verses in our lives – but hopefully you’ve got a few ideas to take away, and maybe you can take some time this week…

to read these verses again and think through how you might put them into practice in your own life. For these things do help us to walk with the Lord, from whom we receive life, and love and grace – and as we dwell in Him and He in us, then His life and love will overflow in this place and out into the wider community, and maybe then Brightons Parish Church might also testify too that “…the Lord added to their number.”

May it be so. Amen.