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New Testament Christianity: Chapter 9 - Christian Maintenance

By J.B. Phillips


      In order to live a life of New Testament quality, we shall find it necessary to work out some kind of practi cal plan to keep us alive and sensitive to the Spirit of the living God, which will keep us supplied day by day with the necessary spiritual reinforcement, and which will help us to grow and develop as sons and daughters of God. It is unfortunately only too easy to slip back into conformity with our immediate surroundings, and to lose sight of the suprahuman way of living, except per haps as a wistful memory. This does not in the least mean that real Christian living is a kind of spiritual tightrope walk, a fantastic and unnatural progress which can only be maintained by intense concentration. On the con trary, the Christian way of living is real living, and it carries all the satisfaction and exhilaration which living in reality can bring. It is quite simply because we are surrounded by unreal and false values, by a pattern of living divorced from and unconscious of spiritual reali ties, that we have to take time and trouble to maintain supranatural life, even though that life is in the truest sense the natural one. Experience shows that Christians whose lives are illuminated by the new quality of living, only maintain that inner radiance by taking certain practical steps. Now, naturally these will vary in indi vidual cases, and there are people who either by temperament or through long years of practice can absorb God through the pores of their being, so to speak, as naturally and easily as most of us can breathe. But for the majority of us who are walking "by faith and not by sight" there are some essentials for the maintenance of real Christian living.

      The first essential need is for quiet. The higher the function of the human spirit, the more necessity for quietness. We cannot, for example, solve a difficult mathematical problem, neither can we appreciate good music, nor indeed art in any form, if we are surrounded by noisy distractions. It is imperative that somehow or other we make for ourselves a period of quiet each day. I know how difficult this is for many people in busy households, and for some even the bedroom is not quiet or private enough. But if we see the utter necessity for this period of quiet, our ingenuity will find a way of securing it. Many churches are open for this purpose among others, and there is no reason at all why we should not use the quiet of the readingroom of the public library. But daily quiet we simply must secure, or the noise and pressure of modem life will quickly smother our longing to live life of the new quality.

      What we must do in the period of quiet is to open our lives to God to perfect understanding, wisdom, and love. Perhaps it seems unnecessary to point this out, yet pastoral experience convinces me that people need to be reminded that we must be completely natural and uninhibited in our approach to the God "in whom we live and move and have our being". Most practising Chris tians have got beyond feeling that God must be ad dressed in Elizabethan English in deference to His Majesty, but there still lingers on an idea that we must be spiritually "dressed in our best" as we approach Him. I am far from suggesting that we should ever treat the aweinspiring mystery of God with overfamiliarity. Yet we know perfectly well, on the authority of Christ, that He is our heavenly Father and our common sense tells us that, although He respects our individuality and our privacy, yet everything about us is quite open to His eyes. We are not addressing some superearthly King, some magnified Boss; we are not even addressing a puri fied and enlarged image of our own earthly fathers. We are opening our hearts and minds to Love, and we need have no fears, no reticences, and no pretences. Strange as it undoubtedly is, He loves us as we are, and indeed we shall make no sort of progress unless we approach Him as we are.

      Prayer has so many aspects that it requires much longer treatment than I can give it here, and I will only mention three which seem to me the most important. The first is the value of worship. For myself, I do not think worship can be forced, nor can I imagine that God wants it so to be. But if we make a habit of associating all that is good, true, lovely, and heartwarming in our ordinary experience of life and people with Him Who is the Source of every good and perfect gift; if without forcing ourselves to be grateful we quietly recount those things for which we can be truly thankful; if we allow our own dreams and aspirations to lead us upward to the One from Whom they are in fact derived, we shall not infrequently find that the springs of worship begin to flow. Sometimes a consideration of the Character of Christ as revealed in the Gospels, sometimes a considera tion of the whole vast Plan for man's redemption, and sometimes a consideration of the immense complexity and wisdom revealed in a dozen different departments by the researches of Science will move us to wonder, ad miration, awe, and worship.

      The second important point I should like to make is that in our prayers we should not merely confess our sins and failures to God, but claim from Him the opposite virtue. If we stress again and again our own par ticular failings, we tend to accentuate and even to perpetuate them. Many of us Christians need to adopt a more positive attitude. We need to dare to draw upon the inexhaustible riches of Christ, not as though that were some poetic and metaphorical expression, but as though it were a fact. The Gospel is not Good News if it simply underlines our own sinfulness. That is either a foregone conclusion or it is Bad News! But the whole wonder and glory of the Gospel is that into people who have sinned and failed badly God can pour not only the healing of forgiveness but the positive reactivating power of goodness. It is not the mere overcoming of a fault that we should seek from God, but such an overflowing gift of the opposite virtue that we are transformed. I cannot believe that the miracles of personalitytransformation, which undoubtedly occurred in such places as Corinth and Ephesus nineteen centuries ago, are beyond the power of God's activity today. We are altogether too timorous and tentative. Why should we not make bold and farreaching demands upon the spiritual riches which are placed at our disposal?

      Thirdly, I should like to stress the value of intercession for other people. I do not pretend to understand the mys tery of intercession, though I am sure it is never an attempt to bend the will of a reluctant God to do some thing good in other people's lives. But somehow in the mysterious spiritual economy in which we live we are required to give love, sympathy, and understanding in our prayers for others, and this releases God's power of love in ways and at depths which would otherwise prove beyond our reach. I confess I stand amazed at the power of intercessory prayer, and not least at what I can only call the "celestial ingenuity" of God. He does not, as a rule, directly intervene; He assaults no man's person ality, and He never interferes with the freewill which He has given to men. Yet, working within these appar ently paralysing limitations, God's love, wisdom, and power are released and become operative in response to faithful intercessory prayer. It is all part of the high Pur pose, and all true Christians are responsibly involved in such praying.

      It is very noticeable in the New Testament records of the early Church that Christians existed in fellowship. Of course it may easily be pointed out that a sect which was such a tiny minority in a pagan world would be forced to close its ranks and stand together if it were to survive at all. That is perfectly true, but it was surely more than mere expediency that kept the early Christians together. Surely part of their extraordinary strength and vitality was due to their being "of one heart and mind". They worshipped and prayed together, they shared in "the breaking of bread" (Acts 2:42). Even though, judging from the evidence of Paul's letters, it was not very long before factions and "splinter groups" arose, yet the overall picture is of the Young Church standing firm and fearless in fellowship.

      Now, since human beings are for the most part gre garious by nature, they tend to join with others who have similar interests. There are clubs, associations, fraterni ties, and societies without number throughout the whole civilised world to join together in fellowship people whose common interest may be flyfishing, stamp -collecting, birdwatching, hiking, photography, garden ing, interplanetary travel, or any of a host of widely assorted subjects. Since this is so, it would appear to the casual observer that the fellowship of the Church is simply another organisation, in this case an association of people whose interests lie in the Christian religion. But this is very far from being the case, for the fellowship of Christians is the outward manifestation of a deep spiritual unity. Men and women have discovered through the living Spirit of God what they are meant to be and the Plan with which they are called to cooperate. They have discovered the reality of the spiritual order, and what is even more important, they have found that Jesus Christ is no mere Figure of history, but a living contemporary Person Whose personality and power cleanses and invigorates their own. They have dis covered beneath the surface of different temperaments and backgrounds that they belong to the same family - that they are all sons and daughters of the same Father. They are in a world largely insensitive to the true order of things, "picked representatives" of the new human ity (see Colossians 3:12). In a very real sense they are carrying on the work which Christ began so long ago, not so much in admiration and memory of Him, but as people dedi cated to follow the leading of His contemporary Spirit. They form together, as Paul pointed out long ago, "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:27). They are not a human organisation but a suprahuman organism. They are the life of the real world being expressed in human terms in the present temporary setup.

      Of course all the above may appear a pathetically or even a ridiculously idealistic picture of the modern Church. But surely the words fairly represent what the Church should be and could be, and they at least partly explain why Christian fellowship in the Church is far more essential than any human association for the pro motion of this, that, or the other. Because Christians are "members one of another" they must work as an organic whole, different as their individual functions may be. All this means that a very large part of our Christian maintenance will consist of joining in with the fellowship of the Church, in its prayer and worship, in its work and service. Many people who profess to be Christians are very irregular worshippers. I do not think they can possibly realise how they weaken the cause of the Church, and in addition starve themselves of Christian fellowship. Many people appear to be convinced that they can lead good lives without committing themselves to Church attendance or the fellowship of the Church. Of course if the object of Christianity were to produce good, respectable people, quite a fair proportion could go on being good and respectable, and even bringing up good and respectable children, without much aid from the Church. But suppose that is not the point at all; it certainly is not the point in the New Testament. The Church is never regarded as a rallyingground for the good and respectable. On the contrary, it is a fellowship of those whose lives have been transformed by Christ, a fellowship of those who have become aware of the vast spiritual struggle which is taking place on the stage of this planet, a fellowship of those who are the actual living instruments of God's Purpose today. If our aim is merely morality, we may very well be able to do without the Church, but if we are being called as sons and daughters of God to cooperate with His high Purpose in the re demption of mankind, we cannot absent ourselves from the fellowship of other Christians without greatly im poverishing both that fellowship and our own souls. If you had stood as I have stood for so many years in the shoes of a minister of religion, you would see the situa tion with very different eyes. You would see, as the parson does, that when it is an extra fine day and you say, "I think I will give the Christian fellowship a miss today; let us get out into the country", thousands of others say and do exactly the same thing. The result is not merely that public worship is thinly attended, but we miss more than it is possible to estimate the corporate prayer and the renewal week by week of our common dedication to our unseen Lord. Yes, and on the purely human level we miss the mutual encouragement and warmth that only a full Church fellowship can bring.

      Again, if the Church is to make any worthwhile im pact on the surrounding community, if it is even to speak with a voice worth hearing, it must have the active com mitted support of all true Christians. I repeat, I do not think that the many delightful casual Christians whom I know have the slightest idea how they sabotage the power and witness of the Christian fellowship by their haphazard attachment to the Church. Now, we have already admitted that the early Church was compelled to be a closeknit fellowship in order to survive against all the forces of paganism. The forces of paganism are no less powerful today, although they are not nearly so obviously dangerous. Modern materialism, secularism, abysmal ignorance about God and His Plan for life are very real enemies on the side of darkness, and the lone Christian does less than nothing for the army of light when he remarks: "I find I can be just as good a Chris tian without ever joining the Church."

      This whole question of entering fully into the worship and work of the Church must be faced by all those who genuinely desire to serve Christ in this modem age. There is an immense amount of diffused goodwill and willingness to serve others in countries with a Christian tradition such as this. Such things are far from valueless to the community as a whole, but I am convinced they would be far more potent in coping with mankind's ills and necessities if they were part of the extramural work of the Church of Christ. The Christian Church should surely be the centre of inspiration as well as the meeting place for worship and prayer for all those who are deal ing with man's difficult problems, quite frequently in an unconsciously Christian spirit. But so long as even pro fessing Christians refrain from giving their whole hearted loyalty to the Church, it is not surprising that the vast number of unconscious Christians fail to see the point of joining a fellowship so poorly supported. In my own opinion and speaking only for this country, a re vival of true religion and a recovery of spiritual values could quite easily begin if the existing Churches were fully supported by their present members. These men and women of goodwill, quite a number of whom I know personally, who are giving such wonderful selfless service to their fellows, might see in an alert and vital Church the true centre of their own aspirations and endeavours. They might see the point of bringing their own gifts, skill, and experience into a sincerely committed fellowship, and both they and the Church would be im measurably enriched by such a step. But so long as pro fessing Christians remain so loosely attached to their Church, there is not likely to be a core, a deep spiritual fellowship, which could attract the man who is serving humanity in a Christian spirit without knowing exactly why.

      Sharing our inward lives, then, and joining in the fel lowship, worship, and service of the Church, are essen tials for Christian maintenance. Very close to them in importance lies the habit of regular Bible reading. Countless men and women throughout the centuries have found their inspiration and nourishment for the Chris tian life in reading the Word of God. Now, I am not at all sure that our modern way of living is suited to the oldfashioned methods of Bible study. It is not really going to help us to live today if we know, for example, the chronological order of the kings of Israel and Judah, or study verse by verse the book of Lamentations or the book of Esther. If we are pressed for time, and most of us are, what we chiefly need to do is to study the four Gospels and soak ourselves in their spirit, and then to study with imagination the Epistles or Letters, which reflect the life of the vigorous Young Church. I am far from writing off the Old Testament as useless, but to the modern follower of Christ, whose time is limited, it is infinitely more important that he should know intimately the four recorded lives of Christ and the message of the letters of the New Testament than to possess "coverto- cover" knowledge of the whole Bible, which is bound to be sketchy and superficial. To my mind the day of "proof texts" is over. It is not a matter of guiding our life and conduct by finding a particular verse or phrase. What is important is that we should really understand to the limit of our ability what sort of a Person Christ was, what were His methods, and what were His aims. We need to know what He did, in fact, say about the important ques tions affecting life and death, which all of us have to face sooner or later. We need to use our minds, to be as un fettered as we possibly can be from prejudice and reli gious indoctrination. Let us see and feel for ourselves what Christ really was and really taught. Let us allow our minds and spirits to be thoroughly influenced not by the traditions of men, but by what Christ Himself was, said, and taught. He is "the same yesterday, and today, and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8), and as we read His recorded life we can reflect that it is not fancy but sober fact that He Himself stands beside us to guide and instruct us. We need His living Spirit to make the connection between the world of New Testament days and the world in which we have to live today.

      This intelligent reading, particularly of the New Tes tament, will keep alive and alert our inmost spirits. The sacred pages are truly inspired, not, I believe, in any "verbal inspirational" sense, but because they contain the Word of God or, in case that is a meaningless cliche, they contain truths of the Real World in the language of this. Again and again we shall find ourselves challenged, convicted, inspired, or comforted by truths that are not of man's making at all, but which are bright shafts of light breaking through into our darkness.

      Closely allied to intelligent Bible study lies Christian reading. It is a profound mistake to suppose that the Holy Spirit of God ceased to inspire writers when the New Testament had been completed. There are many Christians today who from one year's end to another never read a Christian book. They have little or no idea, for example, how Christianity is spreading throughout the world, of the triumphs and disappointments of the worldwide Church. They have given themselves no chance to know why there is a worldwide movement to wards a once more united Church. They do not know the Christian answer to the challenge of Communism; they are even hazy about the very real and solid achievements of Christian men and women throughout the centuries. To be brutally frank, they are very ignorant both of the history and of the implications of their Faith. In other departments of life they may be highly competent, effi cient, and knowledgeable; but over this, the very heart and centre of their true life, they are frequently abys mally ignorant. These are, I know, harsh words, but the Church could be infinitely more powerful as God's in strument for the establishment of His Kingdom if its members were better informed in their minds as well as more devoted in their hearts.

Back to J.B. Phillips index.

See Also:
   Chapter 1 - Explanation
   Chapter 2 - The Angels' Point of View
   Chapter 3 - God Makes News
   Chapter 4 - The Faith-faculty
   Chapter 5 - Ground for Hope
   Chapter 6 - Love
   Chapter 7 - The Love-deficiency
   Chapter 8 - Peace
   Chapter 9 - Christian Maintenance
   Chapter 10 - Christian Service
   Chapter 11 - Some Conclusions

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