One of the great privileges of my year has been the recent baptism preparation classes that a colleague and I have taken for those getting baptised earlier this month.
It has been wonderful speaking with these men and women who are from different backgrounds and who have experienced very different circumstances before trusting in Jesus.
Our second session together started with a delicious potluck dinner consisting of everything from chicken rice and chilli sambal, to chicken feet, a fish dish, salads, and many types of fruit. As is characteristic of any gathering with food in Auburn, we sent people home with multiple containers of leftovers.
After we had eaten beyond our hearts’ content, we shared our stories (testimonies) of how the Lord worked miraculously in our lives to bring us into a relationship with himself, and with each other as a church family. Some of us spoke in English, others in Mandarin with a trusty and highly skilled translator on hand. Questions were asked as we got to know each other and listened to the accounts of each person’s interactions with the Lord. There were tears of joy, and gasps of amazement as we heard how the Lord had taken people from such radical situations and into a relationship with himself. There was plenty of laughter at some of the random things that occur in life. And after each story, someone else in the group prayed for the person who shared. It was so special.
There are many reasons why I count it a privilege to be sharing in this way with my church family in my living room.
To begin with, it was a reminder to me that God is still at work, in people from every nation that he has so graciously brought to our patch in Auburn, Newington, and Wentworth Point. Some of the stories highlight just how much we as a staff team could not have scripted or planned out the journeys of these people. Seemingly random occurrences, incidental situations, heart-wrenching anguish, and even the pandemic became the catalyst for people looking to explore Jesus through a community of people who ‘just seemed different’, at church. Through it all, the Lord was clearly and obviously in control. He knew what would happen and how it would happen, and as we see him work in these people, we can’t help but praise him and give him all the glory – he ‘who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph 3:20a).
The week before sharing these stories, we explored Ephesians 2:1-10 in some detail. I am always amazed by how much we learn as a church family when we open up the Bible together, no matter how many times we have read a particular passage before. This time, the group was struck by the contrasts that Paul uses so effectively – ‘you were like this…’ (v1-3), ‘but God…’ (v4-10). Our settled position and state before God came and found us was that we were extremely dead (or as we expressed it with some of our Chinese friends, ‘dead-dead’). We were like a valley of dry bones, not only dead and buried, but even without moisture; we couldn’t do anything to save ourselves; we were dead because of our sins of omission and commission; under the influence of the world, Satan, and our own sinful hearts; deserving of the judgement of God himself – dead-dead! And in that sorry state, without hope of anything but to experience hell, we hear the most astonishing of conjunctions: ‘but God’.
God saved us because of who he is – merciful, loving, gracious, and kind. As if that wasn’t enough, he doesn’t just save us (which is much more that we deserve in our dead-dead state), but with Christ, he raises us and seats us in the heavenly realms! And just so we are under no misapprehension, the apostle to the Gentiles lays out for us that this had nothing to do with us or our achievements. No, this was the work of God alone, in our dead-dead state, in order that we would do the good works we were created to do in Christ Jesus. Much like when we look at a beautiful painting and ponder the greatness of the artist, so others ought to see Christians who adorn the gospel, and give thanks to God who created them and gave them re-birth.
What we summarised together as we looked at the work of the Lord in our lives, is the objective reality of what we experienced and articulated in our stories. Can you even imagine? The Creator of the universe worked in us, when we neither deserved it nor wanted it, with a love that surpasses knowledge and that Paul prays we would grasp the width, length, height, and depths of (Eph 3:18-19). Yet, that is exactly what God did for us – he gave us a response of praise for what he has done for us, and it is a privilege to share in what he has done and is continuing to do in those around us.
‘…to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen’ (Eph 3:21).