Growth groups (and why we need them)

Good morning and welcome to St Augustine’s! We are always glad to have visitors amongst us, and those who may be considering joining us regularly. Please let me know if I can be helpful in any way or provide you with any information.

Growth groups. What are they? What do they have to do with church? And should I join one?

What are they? Well, even though our congregation is small, it is also enormous. Far too big to be a place of deep, open and honest conversation. Of course, our goal is that the content of our services will be deep, open and honest! And yet to grow in our dependence on Jesus, and to deepen our knowledge and love of God, we need each other in a more intimate setting than a public worship service. Growth groups are there to help us to grow, as we build relationships of trust and openness with one another.

What do they have to do with church? Well put simply, our church (like any church) needs to grow. Of course, we want to grow numerically: all of us would love to see vibrant Sunday gatherings, full of new people exploring the things of God. But just as the growth of a garden requires attention to each and every plant, so too does the growth of a church.

I don’t think our faith should be an add-on to our lives, like a membership of an association or a hobby. Our faith is a core aspect of who we are as persons. Faith in God is only one of many “faiths” that we have in life. And I’m not talking about other religions! We put faith in the brakes and steering systems of our car when we are on the road. If we didn’t trust them, we wouldn’t get behind the wheel. We put faith in builders who put 20 tonne rooves over our heads, in doctors who prescribe chemicals for us to ingest or inject, even in chairs we slump our weight into. We put faith into more things each day than we care to consider.

The big question is: what does it look like for us to put our faith in God? Do I trust in the things or people he has created more than I trust in the One who created them? Well yes, often I do. And this usually doesn’t become apparent unless I have open, focused conversations about these very things.

Should I join a growth group? Another way of putting the question is, do I need to grow? Growth is intrinsic to life. No growth and we shrivel. Are you open to the idea of building relationships, studying God’s word, and reflecting with each other on what it means for our lives? And to committing the details of your life to him in prayer with others?

I’d love to encourage everyone to think carefully about whether you might join one. Would you consider it? No matter what our stage in life, I know that God will bless us if we humbly seek to grow in our knowledge and love of him.

What is an Australian Easter?

Thank you for joining us, especially if you are not a regular church attender… we are honoured to have you with us, and trust that our time together is encouraging, welcoming and thought provoking.

What is an Australian Easter? It’s a bit different from Christmas, with its strong family associations and big lunches or dinners. Easter does mean chocolate, mostly eggs and bunnies.

But I think the Easter most Aussies think about is the holiday. The 4-day week-end, just long enough to get away for a few nights or to get out into the garden. And the weather is often great.

It fits well with the Aussie way of life: we like getaways and outdoor activities, and ironically sometimes need to be forced to take time out to do these things.

What place then does the Christian message have? It’s actually pretty jarring. Good Friday represents the cruel death of the one we call the Son of God, literally thousands of years ago, and literally on the other side of the planet. This part of Easter probably struggles for RELEVANCE for many people. So remote in concept, time and place.

And then on Easter Day there is the claim of resurrection from the dead. That this Son of God remained dead only for a few days and then appeared to his followers. This part of Easter probably struggles for BELIEVABILITY for many.

How about you? In the end, the Christian message is not about telling people they must go to church instead of going on holiday. It is a message that requires a personal response. What do you YOU make of Easter? Do you believe that these events actually happened?

The impact of Easter involves coming to terms with these extraordinary things that God did in our world. We may want him to take away our illnesses, our financial struggles, or our relationship difficulties.   And yet Easter challenges us to ask whether God himself might have some kind of agenda for the world.

After all, if he allowed his son to be nailed to a cross, he must have been doing something important. Likewise, if death itself is reversed at the first Easter, God must have some kind of agenda for the world… what is it?

My family and I wish you a happy (and reflective!) Easter.

Palm Sunday: laying out the green carpet

Welcome! We trust that you enjoy your time today at St Augustine’s. We’d love to connect with you in some way if you are up for it. Feel free to chat to me after the service, or to contact me using the contact information on the pew sheet.

Today is Palm Sunday and we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. In our Lent Bible Studies we looked at this recently in Mark 11. It is often called the “triumphal entry”. Why do you think this is?

There was certainly a big crowd. Many people spread out their cloaks on the road. Others had cut leafy branches (or palms) and laid them out on the road. So Jesus had a kind of ‘red carpet’ welcome, although it was more likely a green carpet!

In addition to what they did, it is important what they said. In Mark 11:9-10, the people called out a range of things. The first was “Hosanna”, which is a term of praise. But it literally means “Oh save us!” It is actually a cry for help, addressed to Jesus.

The second cry is “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. This is God’s envoy. And to say that he is blessed is to speak with great admiration for him. It’s an expression of great honour.

The third cry is “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” David was promised an eternal kingship for one of his descendants, and to associate Jesus with that kingdom is to say this is promise-fulfilment time. Hopes are high for this man. Not only are they treating him as king, they are suggesting that a new, eternal reality is dawning.

The fourth cry “Hosanna in the highest” implies that heaven is watching on. The angels are participating in this praise of Jesus the One come to save.

And yet… he is riding a donkey, not a king’s warhorse. This is a fulfilment of Zechariah 9:9, which promised that Israel’s king would be … lowly. This means he is simultaneously victorious and humble.

How do you view Jesus? Humble and weak? Victorious and judgemental? Neither of these pairs reflect the Bible’s value system. In the Bible, humility is connected with strength, not weakness. And victory is given (by God), not snatched by superiority.

So this Easter, let us grow in our admiration for Jesus, seeking to know him as he truly is. After all, there is much to draw us to him!

 

Invisible baptism

Welcome to St Augustine’s! We hope you enjoy your time with us.

Today is a very special day: an opportunity to baptise Stella Mak. In the service, we will find out more about Stella’s background and longstanding desire to be baptised. It is an honour for us to share in this significant day for her.

Like Holy Communion, baptism is a physical sign of a spiritual reality. The water just comes from the tap, and it doesn’t make a great deal of difference whether it is sprinkled over someone or whether they are submerged.

When a person becomes a Christian, he or she puts trust in the promises of God and appropriates them personally. It is the difference between knowing that Jesus brings salvation and calling out to him to be my saviour. It’s the difference between facts about Jesus and relationship with Jesus.

When you ask Jesus to save you, an extraordinary thing happens. The Holy Spirit connects you with Jesus. It is an invisible connection – you may or may not feel it – but one that immediately changes the entire trajectory of your life. Instantly, Jesus becomes your representative. His death on the cross becomes a death that pays for your sin. His burial in the tomb enables you to be counted as having been buried for your sins. And, wonderfully, his resurrection becomes the guarantee that one day you too will be resurrected… raised from the dead to be with him for ever. And yes, this connection with Jesus is called … your baptism. In Romans 6, Paul puts it like this:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

What a joy this is! It calls for a visible symbol to help us celebrate. And Jesus chose water baptism to represent visibly this hidden spiritual baptism: an outward sign of our inward cleansing and preparation for eternal life with God. Thanks be to him!

The challenge of forgiveness

Welcome to St Augustine’s: it is our pleasure to have you with us today. Please let me know if there is any way I can help you out.

This week in our Lent Bible Studies we looked at chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel. It’s a long section, with various accounts of Jesus words and actions, some of which seem confusing. Why did he curse the fig tree? Why is that story intermingled with him visiting the Temple and overturning the tables? And isn’t it odd that in the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, Jesus says that the owner “will come and kill” the tenants… how is that consistent with the message of love and forgiveness? Many great conversations about these questions.

But the hardest question wasn’t difficult because of its oddness. It was difficult because of how hard it is to do. Mark 11:25 says “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Perhaps you know someone who is hard to forgive? Someone who has hurt you or a loved one, and you just cannot imagine releasing them from that… We regularly pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, but for many of us there are some situations that are seemingly unforgivable.

It is interesting though to see the links that the Bible makes between our own forgiving of one another and God’s forgiveness of us. The reality is: God forgave us “while we were enemies”. God forgave a debt far greater than the debt others have to us. And yet it says we can’t really claim God’s forgiveness if we’re not willing to forgive others.

This is a challenge indeed. And yet we must not put our own salvation in jeopardy, nor hold ourselves in bondage, by clinging on to other people’s sins in our hearts.

If ever there was a subject for prayer, this is it. If you’re not sure who you need to forgive, ask God to tell you. He may bring to mind a long list, or just one name. And if you feel that forgiveness is beyond you, then ask him for help!

“And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. Philippians 4:7.

Greatness apart from achievements

It is our great pleasure to have you with us at St Augustine’s today… welcome, and please let us know if we can be helpful to you at all. Our intention is to demonstrate the grace and kindness of God to each other and to those who are new among us, as He has demonstrated it to us.

As many of you are aware, I was in Sydney this past week, and it turns out that while I was there I was able to attend a memorial service for an old friend of mine, Mike Ovey. Mike passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in January in London, and a funeral was held back then. But on Monday this week at All Soul’s Langham Place in London, a memorial service was held for about 2000 people. A video recording of this service was sent to Sydney so that a smaller group of us could also participate from this side of the world.

Why the multiple events? Who was Mike? He was the principal of Oak Hill Theological College in North London, and one of the sharpest minds in church leadership in the world today. But for me, Mike’s loss is not about his status or his achievements; it’s about who he was and the contribution he made to my life.

Mike was gentle and kind, and always had time for people, especially those in difficulty. He was a great conversationalist, and always interested in what the other person had to say.

I had the privilege of spending a semester in one of his classes in 2004 on the Doctrine of God. And I can truly say that this course turned my whole understanding upside down. I believe that the information and learning we gather about God ought to turn us to praise and wonder – this was what I took from Mike.

Mike was also my youth group leader when I was in Cambridge as a high-schooler back in 1989. Mike was a funny guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, and we warmed to him straight away. But the whole time, his great desire for us was to see us grow in our knowledge of our maker and redeemer.

There are certain people in life who leave a lasting and deep impression on us for all the right reasons. I am deeply thankful to God for Mike and the person he was and the impact he had, despite his shortened years.

Our ministry: what is it?

Last week was our Annual Vestry Meeting (AVM), effectively a business meeting. We received reports, took minutes, and elected office-bearers. These formal processes are important, as we manage the ministry of our church.

But it is good to remind ourselves occasionally that they are not themselves the ministry of our church. They are supporting structures of much more important things that we do as a group of God’s people meeting regularly.

So what exactly IS our ministry? It is the services we run? Well yes it is, but it’s not only that. Interestingly, the word for “ministry” in the New Testament original language (Greek) is the same as the word for “service”. But here it doesn’t mean church services: rather, serving one another. To minister is to consider the needs of those around us and to contribute to those needs.

Sometimes this is bearing others’ burdens. Sometimes it is practical assistance. Sometimes it is the timely word to strengthen each other.

But at the heart of our serving one another must be the good news of Jesus. The message of God’s love expressed in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus is at the centre of our church life. It motivates us to deny ourselves and take up our own cross; it teach us what it is to make sacrifices; and it draws us to know the very source of love itself: to God. God out-loves us all. None of us can love in the manner and extent that he does. And yet he wants us to walk in his ways nevertheless.

So let’s seek to serve. Whether you’re up the front reading the Bible; whether you’re providing morning tea; whether you’re looking after the needs of others…. Serve, knowing it’s what church is all about.

Having said this, I am so grateful for a great AVM and for the wonderful people who have made themselves available to serve us as office bearers!

Cheers, Mark

Sermons are not enough

Good morning and welcome to St Augustine’s church. We are a community of people convinced of the love that God has expressed to us and seeking to share that love with those around us. Whether you’re newish or visiting us, or whether you’ve been part of this group for many years, we hope you feel that you can belong here, develop friendships and connections, strike up conversations, and even ask for help if you need it.

Last Sunday we had a real reminder of our Christian unity through the brunch we shared after the service. It was a very encouraging time, with lots of laughing, conversation, and of course food. We found ourselves looking around and being comforted that we are looking at better times. We look forward to seeing what God has in store for us as a community of faith. We trust he will grow us, not only in numbers, but also in spiritual maturity, as we seek his Spirit’s work in us and through us.

As you have probably worked out by now, I am a strong believer that the word of God, the Bible, is central to our lives as Christians. It is God’s own expression of himself to us, and so really is “a lamp for our feet” as Psalm 119:105 says.

The word of God is not our goal, but it is our way to our goal. And that goal of course is life lived in the strength and wisdom of God, and then ultimately life lived in the eternal presence of God. Studying the word of God therefore should be something to which we apply ourselves.

And yet sermons are not enough. Sermons encourage us, teach us, challenge us, and sometimes even rebuke us. And yet we regularly have questions of the text that we are not able to answer and the preacher is not able to anticipate.

And so for this reason, I’d like warmly to invite you all to participate in our Lenten Bible studies. For those unfamiliar with church language, that just means that it will be a series of studies occurring during the season of Lent, which is the 6 weeks leading up to Easter. In these studies, we’ll follow the journey of Christ to the cross and ask what implications this has for our lives as his followers.

I’d love it if you would all join in. There will be 2 options (10am and 7:30pm – meet in the church). Please sign up for a group on the list at the back of the church, even if you will not be able to make every session.

I look forward to growing together in our fellowship in Jesus.

Cheers, Mark

Welcome the kids

Greetings and welcome to St Augustine’s! It is always an honour for us to have guests among us and my hope is that you are made to feel appreciated here. Please do let us know if there is any way we can be of help to you… our community is full of people willing to help others. And if you are going through a challenging phase of life, or facing difficult events, please let me know if there is any way I can help you, or pray for you.

Last week it was so exciting to see an increased number of kids in the building. As a father of little ones myself, there are times when I’d prefer the peace and quiet of adult company! However as a minister, I am gladly embracing the idea of building a flourishing kids ministry. In particular, I think that a church without a kids ministry is probably a church without a future.

Kids who grow up knowing and loving Jesus are more likely to follow him as an adult, although as we know, there are many who give away their faith. And so may I encourage you to be in prayer for our kids, that God would bring them to us, that he would teach them by his Spirit, and keep them for eternal life.

We are blessed to have Angeline working with us in our kids ministry, planning their time together and loving them and looking after them on Sunday mornings. Angeline and I are meeting up regularly to think, plan and pray about our kids ministry. Our hope is that we’ll see more young families join us and that God will bless their kids through their time with us. Please join me in praying for this crucial opportunity for our church to grow. I believe God wants us to ask him to bless us!

Welcome the kids!

Cheers, Mark

The cross is foolishness… huh?

Welcome along to St Augustine’s… I hope you’ve been warmly greeted by our regulars, and perhaps you will be able to stick around for a cuppa after the service.

Over this period in the church calendar called “Epiphany”, which refers to the appearing of the Lord, we are doing a series of sermons from 1 Corinthians 1-4. That will take us through until the end of February.

The passage we looked at last week was foundational for me as a young adult trying to understand the Christian message. It began with the words, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. I remember as a university student thinking how extraordinary that Paul actually used the words cross and foolishness in the same sentence. I’d always thought of the cross as being a concept requiring nothing but the deepest respect. And yet here is the Apostle Paul suggesting that there is a kind of foolishness attached to it if we apply only human wisdom: that it’s a really silly thing to worship a saviour who died so gruesomely and helplessly.

But hearing Paul on this changed my approach to faith. Where I had once shared my beliefs in the assumption that people would soon enough see that Christianity makes sense, I now realised that in fact Christianity does NOT make sense to the world. So when we speak of it to friends, family or neighbours, we should not expect them to simply say, “Oh right, I see… I will now logically become a Christian”.

That’s not how it works, and I am still coming to grips with the fact that when someone becomes a Christian it is not because they’ve seen the inherent human logic and sense to it. Rather, somehow God has revealed something to them of himself and his own great wisdom and power. The Christian has not “worked out” how to get to God, but has had the way to God revealed to him or her. And so salvation is a gift from God, and not a human achievement.

After all, what kind of salvation would it be if it were something we achieved! May God continue to bless us all with his own wisdom, pointing us to his power, that we may boast only in him.

In love, Mark