By Rev David Burke
The unfinished business of Jesus and his church
I want to acknowledge: the indigenous people who walked before us on this land; the officers and members of the General Assembly; friends and churches who reflect my past and present walk in faith and service; the family from which I come and to whom I belong; and the Triune God in whom we all live and move and have our being.
I want to talk about: The unfinished business of Jesus and his church.
The unfinished business of Jesus
We speak of the “finished work of the Cross” and indeed the work of the Cross is finished. Nothing needs to be added, or can be added, for our justification.
However, there is still unfinished work for Jesus.
Let’s review the work of Jesus:
First the background.
There was the pre-creation vision of the Triune God that included the Fall and corruption of all things. In that vision there isa divine commitment to restore, renovate and perfectthe good good creation. God is not a demolition contractor who trashes and abandons his good creation, but a renovation specialist on a cosmic scale.
Then there is the pure love of Father that resolved to reconcile all things and the execution of that plan through Jesus and its facilitation by the Holy Spirit.
And so we now focus on the work of Jesus as the one through whom the Father’s plan is executed:
As our Bible teaches & our Confession and Declaratory Statement reminds,there were certain key objective, supernatural and historic events at the heart of the gospel. They are all about Jesus.
- Incarnation: Jesus shows us God in a way we can understand. He shows us ourselves in the best and truest humanity as we were meant to be.
- Active obedience: Jesus is the one who alone lived the life of true Adam and so fulfilled the terms of God’s covenant with humanity through the law.
- Atoning death: God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement that made propitiation for sin-guilt of all who believe. This is life for a life: his life’s blood for our guilt in which the penalty of sin is paid & the power of sin is broken.
- Resurrection:The resurrection of Jesus is glorious display of life by his triumph over the last enemy of death and his foreshadowing of the brimming, overflowing life of the new creation. It gives us hope of that which was and which shall yet be.
- Ascension: mission accomplished, the Son could return to his throne at the Father’s side.
All that is done, but work of Son is not finished. This is his past work. There is also his present and his future work.
Future: Yet to come is that glorious day when, with shout of angels and trumpet blast, the Lord will return; raise all who are dead; separate his own to himself for eternal life; separate the rebels for eternal judgement; and when he delivers the kingdom to God the father and subjects all things to him(1 Cor 15:24-28).How we long for that day and call Maranatha!
However, the work of Jesus is not just past and future.
Jesus already reigns with the Father from heaven’s throne & in him the whole universe continues to hold together.
Consider also the present enduring priestly work of Jesus.His sympathetic understanding gives us confidence as we draw near to throne of grace in our prayers that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our times of need (Heb 4:14-16). Every time we pray we draw on this present work of Jesus.
There is another present work of Jesus that draws us in. Let’s focus here…
There is a curious start to Acts. Luke writes of how in volume 1 he spoke of all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up (Acts 1:1-2). That word began has hint that Jesus had more to do and teach. But then Luke immediately gives us his second account of the ascension. How can an absent Jesus continue and finish the work whose beginnings Luke describes?
The answer, of course, lies with the third person of the Trinity and then through the church.
Before his death, Jesus promised that he and the Father would send the third person of Trinity to be another helper or counsellor to be alongside his people (eg Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15). His last word between his resurrection and ascension was again to promise the Holy Spirit and to promise that he would empower the witness of the church (Acts 1:8).
And so it was and is. Acts 2 describes the extraordinary manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The rest of the book of Acts describes the extraordinary and ordinary work of the Holy Spirit in and through the church. As is widely recognised, Acts gives a pivotal place to this work of the Spirit.
This is Jesus at work. This is the Son continuing his unfinished business as he causes the gospel of God to be proclaimed on earth as well as to the heaven lies (Eph 3:10). This is Jesus, working to the Father’s plan through their Spirit. The work of the Spirit is the work of the Son. And the work of the Son is the work of the Father.
Their work creates our unfinished business.
The unfinished business of his church
Our work can be variously described.
- It is to be salt and light to a fallen but much loved world. It is to show the gospel in lives of love, integrity, generosity and authenticity. It is to tell of the gospel in words that are utterly faithful to God, and utterly connected with clarity to the world around us.
- It is to make disciples as we go through life. We do this by telling people about Jesus, seeing them converted and then sharing in the public declaration and seal of that through baptism. It is to then teach those converts all that Jesus said so that they can live by it (Matt 28:19-20).
- It is to help people come to life in Christ and then grow from fickle infancy to an adult maturity which is neither more nor less that likeness to the fullness of the measure of the stature of Christ (Eph 4:13).
- It is to be his witnesses in our Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of his earth (Acts 1:8). Just as Jesus came as a light to the Gentiles that all people might see God’s salvation (Lke 2:32; 3:6), so we are to be his light bearers that all may hear of that same salvation.
All this is our unfinished business. And it remains unfinished until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth and then he comes (Matt 24:14; Mrk 13:10).
As part of the one earthly universal body of Christ, we in PCNSW also have unfinished business.
The unfinished business of PCNSW
Tomorrow we will launch a book published for the 40th anniversary of the 1977 church union. It is timely to have a ‘state of the union’ moment and look back, look around and look forward.
- Survived. Survivalwas not altogether clear in 1977 and is against the expectations of some then and since. Many of us have several times heard people outside and within the church predict that we will be gone in 10-15 years. Some have used this to advocate for some change or another– unless we do this or that we’ll all be gone. It is good to outlive such predictions.However, survival cannot be assumed and, more importantly,survival is not the name of the game. We are not here to prop up a centuries old denomination, but instead to thrive for the kingdom of God.
- Recovered and safeguarded the gospel. There is greater clarity, conviction and depth in the way we understand and hold the gospel as taught in the Bible and recovered in the Reformation. It is an assumed standard in our churches and courts that the Bible rules. This is good.
- We are more coherent than in divided years pre and immediately post-union. We certainly had our years of division after church union as the struggle for identity played out in local churches and in presbyteries and Assembly. However, the kindness of God is such that we are now more united in ways not seen for a long time.
- Rebuiltthe denominational agenciesthat were lost in 1977 – social services, missions, Christian and theological education, ministry to youth and more. It is easy to forget how little we were left with 40 years ago.
Let us look back and be thankful for God’s kindness in these matters and more.
Let us also hear the challenge of our unfinished business, internal and external.
- To safeguard the faith that was once given to the saints. Our own history shows that we cannot assume this. Our confessional heritage is good and precious, but it is easily lost. Our theological college is both the danger area and the strong point in this.
- To align our ministry structures with the gospel, our doctrinal standards and our missional vocation. As an older colleague said recently: one thing I know is that the structures and ministry approaches that have served us well over past decades are not the ones that we need for the future. We need a renewed trellis. It is good that we have begun this through a special Assembly Committee and also that the Ministry and Mission Committee has wise heads in this area.
- To maximise the positive practical place of women in the church. It is good to see initiatives in equipping women for ministry across various platforms – and to see the record number of women completing full study programs at Christ College and doing advanced research degrees. However, we are yet to translate that fully into the ministry of women in the local church and denominational structures – including into employed ministry. How can we better hear women’s voices in our decision making and engage women’s energies and talents in our ministries?
- To harness scare resources to gospel ends, including that of church planting. Here we look to the team at trustees and the General Office.
- To bring our NESB congregations more fully into denominational networks, to help them transition to mainstream church life and to be a blessing to the wider church and to be blessed by it.
- To have a compassionate engagement with the temporal needs of the world around us. How can we better show love of Christ to the new marginalised peoples around us, as well as to widow, orphan and poor who are always with us? How do we engage with the increasing, diverse and complex needs that emerge in a world where the shadows of our rebellion against God are dark and growing? This is a challenge for the local church and for Jericho Road.
- To have a constructive and connected witness to modern Australia. We live in an age of scepticism about all institutions and a particular scepticism about the church. How can we speak in a way that is both faithful to God and which is heard on issues like marriage redefinition, gender identity, asylum seekers, Aboriginal affairs, gambling, drug abuse, corporate and private greed, climate change and more? Our Gospel, Society and Culture Committee is giving us good leadership here.
- To engage warmly with Christian brothers and sisters of other traditions and who share our love for Jesus. We have been much concerned with Presbyterian identity in post-union period. Is it now time to look beyond our walls and find common cause? Yes, this will be to others of the established denominations linked through existing channels, but it is time better to recognise the significance of non-denominational networks and independent churches. Much of the present cutting edge in gospel ministry is in the newer fellowships, partnership and movements. We have things to gain and things to give there.
- To live as God’s exiles and strangers. Christendom is dead, buried and cremated. It took us too long to recognise that. So quickly we seem now to move from a benign tolerance and indifference of the church to one in which we are hated for Jesus’ sake. How will we live in our Egypt and our Babylon?
- To keep speaking about Jesus in a way that is faithful to God and winsomely connected to a world that ignores and laughs at him and us. This is the challenge of evangelism and church planting. It is good to see the recent church plants at Rozelle, Petersham, Hornsby, Green Square, the coming plant back at Wynyard and more,but there is scope for more and more – and especially for presbyteries to help take initiative sin church planting.
Let’s summarise. There is an old reformation slogan: reformed and always reforming. If you like, we have been good at recovering and living our reformed identity since 1977. However, we face the challenge of always reforming in our internal and external identity and actions. We have unfinished business until Jesus comes.
The work of Jesus is unfinished.
That means that our work is unfinished.
So let us busy about our business, because our business is his business.
- An edited version of Mr Burke’s speech will be published in the September-October edition of The Presbyterian Pulse magazine.