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What next?

Those who have visited here may realise that over six years I have posted weekly comments on the three year cycle of (RCL) Sunday Bible readings. Now that I have (largely) covered the gospel, and in the second triennium the New Testament readings, what next?

Here, in electronic format, is a collection of material for the Easter season of year C – this year (2022). In other words a free book, to read on computer / tablet / phone. I hope it might be of interest to those who know my style, and perhaps also to worship leaders looking for material, and those unable to join a congregation.

Meanwhile, the historic selection is still available. Use the “search” box to enter a Biblical reference (in full, so try “1 Corinthians 15”), or a Sunday (“Easter 2” – this is less specific). Alternatively enter a theme word (“resurrection”), or look at the sequence (gospels from April 2016, epistles from April 2019).

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Motivation.

What is strong enough to motivate your Christian life? What will not only start you off with good intentions, but keep you going, month by month and year by year? If you read 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, you will hear Paul telling us how Moses came down from his meeting with God glowing. The experience had been wonderful – and it was obvious to those who saw him. Experience is important – whether we look back to a dramatic experience of God, or a turning point in our lives. Or perhaps we don’t have anything quite so exciting, but still need to look for the ways God has helped and guided us at different times – often through other people, perhaps a book, or a new understanding. Moses “glow” was a bit offputting for the people; Paul says it faded, and certainly it wasn’t enough to keep the people of Israel confident and faithful in the wilderness. Looking back can be comforting and helpful, but it may not be enough.

If experience isn’t enough to motivate us, what about the feel-good factor? If Christianity is good for us, if it brings us to our full potential and helps us realise our true purpose in life, isn’t that going to be rewarding and wonderful? The trouble is that it is rather like a healthy diet and regular exercise. We know it ought to be good, but keeping it up can be – difficult. As the Israelites headed into the desert, they might have known that they were being formed into God’s people, ready to establish themselves in the Promised Land. But they still squabbled, and sinned, and wanted to give up and go back to slavery etc. Yes, Christian living is good for you, but like the best medicine, it sometimes tastes really terrible.

So what is going to motivate you, if experience and the feel-good factor aren’t enough? Paul tells the Corinthians that the Law of Moses wasn’t enough, because the Spirit was lacking. Jesus motivates his closest disciples, not just by a sight of his glory, but by reference to his coming death. An individual Christian, or a congregation, has to be motivated by knowing that Jesus died for us. It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with. It needs thought and prayer – and then response. And that response comes at many levels: rational, emotional, personal and relational.

It is the Cross, – our understanding that Jesus death is for us, and does for us what we most need and cannot do for ourselves – that has, through the Spirit, the power to motivate and transform. We need our experience of faith. Not to seek or manufacture the dramatic, but to recognise and value God’s working with us and on us. We need the feel good factor, to remind ourselves that Christian faithful living is truly best, most fulfilling, purposeful and successful. Bbut only when we have come to terms with the death of Jesus for us will our motivation be sufficient and our response the depth and continuity that the Spirit can bring.What is strong enough to motivate your Christian life? God’s Spirit, yes, but the Spirit allowed to continue work because we know the importance or our life for which Christ died, the love in which we are held, and the hope which we are given.

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Creation Signpost

[We are coming to the point where all Sundays of the 3 year Common Lectionary will have 2 comments. Watch for news of re-ordering, and perhaps a new project. Meanwhile, use the search box to find comments on particular readings.]

Why, on Creation Sunday, do we go to heaven? It seems that John, writing to a church under some pressure and perhaps expecting more, needs this viewpoint – and perhaps, not least in the run-up to Lent, we do too. Reading Revelation 4 the first thing we see in heaven is a throne. Here is the one who is really in charge! And we see some of the beauty of creation – jasper & carnelian (green and red stones, polished and used for jewellery in the first century), rainbow and emerald. Yes, there is something to be said for seeing God in nature, but notice that while the beauty, order, & colour or diversity, variety and sequences of nature may reflect their Creator, they do not replace Him. They are meant to point us back to the source.

The 24 elders have their thrones – their authority and power – but are in no doubt where it comes from. In the same way the thunder and lightning remind us of the power of nature, and again, this is under control.

We are probably familiar with the nature miracles of the gospels – Jesus can turn water to wine, feed 5,000, and still a storm. I sometimes wonder if we take seriously enough the idea of God as creator of nuclear physics, of biological science, or even his understanding of economics or meteorology. John reminds us that the elders, and then the living creatures refer and defer to the one on the throne, in the hope that we will understand our own need to do the same.

So the beauty of Creation reflects the Creator. And the power in Creation reflects that of the Creator. We could get lost in the detail, beauty and intricacy of the universe – so many do – but the songs of heaven which we echo on earth remind us that our focus should be on the one who creates (and in Revelation 5 is seen as re-creator or redeemer as well). Even these magnificent beings are content to glory to God, to honour and serve him.

For the people who first read this letter, this was critical. Real power was in heaven, and the bullies who threatened them were cheats, out of touch with reality. For us, the threat to our understanding of reality is rather more fragmented. We may be bullied by those who say, “Everybody does this. .” or “You can’t be so old-fashioned . . “ We may simply become lazy or mean because we have what we want and no desire to share it or risk our settled life. We may have got lost in delightful distractions.

Wherever we are, John’s vision calls us back to the real world – the world seen from heaven, where the Creator rules, and those who understand honour, and refer back, to him. Our lives are not in our pleasures, but in the purpose given by their Creator. Our future is not ultimately in the hands of politicians, doctors, or financiers, but of God.

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Resurrection – am I bovvered?

Why is Resurrection so important? Paul devotes a long chapter (58 verses) to the subject in his letter to the Corinthians (it is 1Corinthians 15, and today we read 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and it begins to come clear. It sounds very much as if the news that has come back to him from that church has included some nervousness and uncertainty. Some of the members had died. Had they made some terrible mistake? Would these people miss out what had been promised?

Paul wants to calm them down, and takes the opportunity to explain a fundamental part of Christian faith. He starts by saying that he had passed on the Christian message as he had received it: Jesus died for our sins, as scripture had foretold, and had been raised from death to appear before witnesses. It was the way he was proved right in all he had said and done. It was the ultimate seal of approval.

But this isn’t only about proving Jesus right, important as that is. Paul adds v19 “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”. Why try to live as a Christian if it is difficult and sometimes even dangerous? Why didn’t Paul settle somewhere comfortable and teach only people who wanted to hear him? Why the courage of missionaries, the persistence of those looking for justice, and the endurance of those who have accepted hardship and slander to serve? Why? Because Christian faith is not lived to make life easy. It is lived in gratitude and service to God with an eye on eternity, and a judgement on our stewardship after life is done.

The Resurrection of Jesus the “first fruits of those who have died” v20 is a promise of our future – a promise, even for the extremely elderly, of glorious things to come, with justice and mercy. There are lots of questions. Some are tackled in the rest of the chapter, and some remain unclear. Life in the Resurrection is going to be very different, and probably unimaginable. But the resurrection of Jesus, reported by witnesses and evidenced by the change in the disciples lives from despair to hope, is vital to our faith.

It vindicates what Jesus said and did – all that he was.

And it gives us hope of life in eternity, which underlies our life of service, and sometimes difficulty, now.

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Gospel – really!

What is the gospel? There are so many different versions:

  • Being nice to people
  • Keeping the Commandments
  • Ecology
  • Tolerance

– but rules of behaviour are not the gospel. Or we might suggest:

  • Finding God
  • the meaning of life
  • the way things are
  • identity

but again, these are not the gospel. They may be good, they may be things Christians should do because of their faith. But they are not gospel, not basic.

Today we read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, which tells us. Gospel is: about Jesus. It is about his death and resurrection setting us free. Paul says that was his first and fundamental message. Is it only Paul? No, Luke 5 underlines that the gospel is about Jesus, who saves us and changes us and our future. This is the good news – for gospel is literally “good news”. It is for us whether we are new to church, or members for decades, and it is for all.

And importantly, it is NOT advice about how to behave; it is NOT a system of thought, a philosophy, or a theory. It is about Jesus, and God’s plan that through Jesus we might be given the life and freedom and hope we could not gain on our own.That’s why it’s good news – and important that it is delivered and heard as good news.

And all the other things? Most of them are results, consequences of our taking the good news seriously and responding to it. If God sets us free, then maybe our lives should follow his pattern;

  • if he created the universe, then maybe we should look after it;
  • if he loves people, maybe we should do the same
  • if he can cope with us, why should we not see ourselves as he does?

– you can go on, and it is useful to do so. But don’t lose sight of that first and basic point. What is the gospel? It isn’t about the way we do church, or how we ought to behave, or theory of any sort. Gospel is Jesus – Jesus living, dying and rising to set us free. That is what God has done for us; its good news, and we ought to share it.

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All you need is . .

Love. Love gets a good press, and remains universally popular. Yet Christian Love is somehow different. The early Christians knew:

  • love as family feeling
  • love as friendship with equals
  • love as sexual attraction

and still had to invent a new word for this quality of Jesus!

Now, let’s try a little experiment. I want you to read this with me:

I am patient and kind.
I do not demand my own way.
I am not irritable, and I keep no record of when I have been wronged.
I am never glad about injustice but rejoice whenever the truth wins out.
I never give up, never lose faith, am always hopeful, and endure through every circumstance.”

Did you have any difficulty in saying that? You may have recognised it was from 1 Corinthians 13 (today’s reading is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13). But was it true? Did you laugh, or wonder if anyone hearing you might have laughed? Being honest, most of us would admit that – well, we don’t quite measure up to that.

So love is admired, important, and Christian. But it’s one thing to KNOW it, another to BE it. Growing up means taking Jesus as our model, and so we need to know him better. We also need the Holy Spirit to be working on our character, our motivation, and our habits. You may know the gospel stories well, but need to ask “How does that fit?”, “How do I do anything like that?”. It is a good question.

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Body parts

The covid pandemic has taught us, again, how much we rely on other people. It is not so much the cutting edge medical discoveries – though we have been glad of rapidly developed vaccines – but the more mundane. Accident and emergency services, hospital care, key workers delivering food and taking away the rubbish – all the “ordinary” people have come into their own and had the vital work seen for what it is.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when Paul compares the Christian community to a body (1 Cor 12. 12-31a), with diverse parts, but a unity found in their cooperation and coordination. Part of what we have learnt in the last couple of years is the equal importance of all the units. No matter how brilliant the physician, the work of the nurse, PPE supply chain driver, and oxygen system engineer are all equally vital for survival.

The church always has difficulty coming to terms with this (as do many other organisations). The creation of heirarchy, so that the “most important” may take precedence and reward, is always tempting. Yet the more frail and hidden parts of the body all have their place, and need support.

The problem comes in determining what is part of the body, and what is alien – whether infection, splinter, or worse. The Christian community is not the whole of society, though it welcomes all who wish to join. But there are those who do not wish to join, and will not accept the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

We face a similar problem with Covid. How are we to deal with those who not only decline treatment for themselves, but deny any need, and endanger others by spreading infection and discouraging safety measures?

Clearly there is a need to be charitable and patient as far as possible. But the Christian community has always needed to define its boundaries – which means that some are beyond them, at least for the time. Heresy is dangerous (whether as wrong belief or wrong action) because it causes harm. The body is weakened, and needs to take measures to recover. Jesus would seem to agree (Mark 9:47 and parallels), but the need to be charitable, to be sure that we have understood the belief and intention of others, remains.

There is a fashionable emphasis on “inclusion”, the importance of which is well illustrated in this lesson. The need to welcome all who would come to faith, and encourage them in the process of responding to the gospel, is of first importance in the Christian “body”. (And even more so because we have often forgotten this in the recent past). Sadly though, some will not wish to accept the yoke of Christ, the obligations of a disciple, their place among others. None of us are free to demand our own terms of acceptance, or to imagine that we are to instruct, rather than obey, the one we call Lord. Inclusion is important, but in a fallen world, not all will be included, however well our love reflects a God who cares for all.

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Gifts to share

There are many sorts of churches to be found today. Large and small, traditional and very new, in a variety of western and eastern cultural styles. The diversity may sometimes be helpful, but a little baffling. I wonder if you have ever thought of categorising them by their ideal member?

Some patterns are clearly not good: the church where the ideal member is rich and gives a lot of money does not have much to commend it; nor does the church where the ideal member is clearly a “very important person” or recognised celebrity. Others are a bit more mixed: a church which expects humility has not got it all wrong – but may be in danger of oppressing members; a church which expects keen, extrovert enthusiasm likewise has some understanding, but may undervalue the quiet and thoughtful. Sadly many seem to think the ideal Anglican is dumb and never causes any trouble by questioning or disagreeing with anything!

It is interesting to note that Jesus didn’t seem to have a “preferred personality” for his disciples. They were mixed socially, professionally, and there were women in support as well as men. Some had traumatic backgrounds, others were educated, or ordinary working people.

So when Paul wants to tell us about Spiritual Gifts (in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11), we need to take notice, and not mutter excuses about preferring to make the tea or do the practical things. What he has to say is very straightforward, but seldom listened to or taken seriously.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor 12:1-3

The Holy Spirit is expected to be active in all Christians from baptism, and makes faith possible in word and deed, which is how it is expected to show.

 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

1 Cor 12:4-7

to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” There are things the Spirit does for the individual Christian ( – we call those “fruit”, and look at Galatians 5:22.) But here Paul says the spirit provides each and every Christian with a spiritual gift to use for the community. You have been given something to use for everyone else’s good – and each of them has something, too.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Cor 12:7-11

I don’t see Paul talking about being nice to people, or organising rotas – though both can be helpful. We have to face up to the fact that Paul says everyone is given a Spiritual Gift so that the congregation can be enriched and drawn together by the exchange of gifts and the mutual benefit. If we don’t identify our gifts, or refuse to practise them, then we weaken the church. If we don’t encourage other people to recognise and use their gifts, again, the fellowship is damaged.

This isn’t about some pushy people dominating the group, quite the opposite, it is about the group working to recognise and help each to contribute and all to benefit.

So what is the ideal member of our church? Not a particular type or personality, but someone happy to accept and use what God has given them for the benefit of others, and to receive from others what they can usefully offer. I wonder if we are like that yet?

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Approval

Celebrating the Baptism of Jesus, we are reminded of the Holy Spirit coming to him, anointing him as prophets, priests and Kings of the Old Testament had been anointed. Then we read in Acts (Acts 8:14-17) how after the evangelistic work of Phillip the deacon in Samaria, two apostles were sent down to review the situation. It is not that he hadn’t done things properly, but this is a new departure, and the visible coming of the Spirit on these new believers is a heavenly endorsement of the mission.

The gospel is spreading, as the disciples had been told it would and should. It is perhaps significant that John the apostle, one of those who had wanted to call on heavenly fire to destroy a Samaritan village that refused hospitality to Jesus (Luke 9:54), is now an agent of the gift of God’s Spirit in Samaria.

We need to remember that the presence of the Spirit with believers is always essential. Whether we need guidance about which course God is sending us on, or motivation and strength to get on with it, or transformation of personalities and habits into a holy pattern, or wisdom to begin to understand – we all need the Holy Spirit to be active in our lives.

It is the welcome activity of the Spirit that is vital, not the form of delivery. Here the prayer and laying on of the apostles hands is the occasion leading to the visible arrival, in Acts 10:44 the Spirit arrives while Peter is still speaking, and Christians have normally understood the Spirit to be available to all those baptised in the name of Father, Son and Spirit. One Christian was famously rebuked for praying for a fresh gift of the Spirit for himself by another who challenged him that he had already received the Spirit. He wisely agreed, adding “But I leak!”. We all do, and need to recognise our continuing need for the Spirit to work in and through us.

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No lack of effort

God certainly tries hard! Over the ages he has used every way possible to be heard and understood. There is a debate about whether God can be “seen” in nature – if you go for a walk in the next few days, you can test it out, and wonder if the order and goodness say something to you. Then there are the Patriarchs: God’s work with people starts with some rugged individuals – Abraham, leaving the world he knew for a promise, then Isaac and wily Jacob.

Moses forms a nation as he leads slaves out of Egypt – not for the last time God says something about setting people free – and gives them a Covenant, to direct their relationship with God. Sacrifices and festivals help to shape their character. Some don’t respond to that, so there are prophets. Some (Isaiah, Nathan) work within the system; others (Amos, Jeremiah) are radical dissidents – but all speak for God to guide and correct.

So give God credit. Through the events of history, through a variety of people (all sorts of people!), through the written word, through creation itself, God is communicating, trying to make himself understood.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

Hebrews 1:1-2

That is what the New Testament reading for Christmas Day (Hebrews 1:1-4) is saying. God, the abstract absolute, becomes a human being in order to make himself more easily understood. But being the sort of God he is, does not arrive as Superman, but as a baby, vulnerable, needing the protection of those who care – at some cost to themselves. That tells us amazing things about God, and his desire to work with us, but leave us the freedom to choose.

And that is what we celebrate. Jesus, who communicates God not just when he grows up and tells us by parables and teaching, but by the way he arrives, the life he lives, the fact that he is content to live our life. He gives significance to every part of our life – work and rest, family, community. God communicates, not by shouting louder, but by removing every obstacle for those who want to hear. So celebrate now, but don’t stop listening.

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Better than Sacrifices

What’s going on? You may say it on joining a group of people after being out of the room, or on coming across a riot, or in other circumstances. We hope people will ask it of Christmas: What’s going on? What does it all mean? Why the celebration? The writer to Hebrews explains in Hebrews 10:5-10 “when Christ was about to come into the world” and he uses words quoted from Psalm 40:6-8 to explain What’s going on – the purpose and significance of Christ, his birth, life and death (confusingly, he uses Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which differs slightly from the Hebrew original behind our English translations).

What is the main point? OBEDIENCE is very much more important than SACRIFICE. The punch line is

Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—     I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:7

Of course, sacrifice was set out in Old Testament, but it was educational, and temporary. The killing of animals who had no idea of what was going on might teach the cost of sin, and God’s ownership of all creation, but it offered no lasting solution to restoring the relationship between God and his people. Even in those times, prophets and others pointed beyond the observance of sacrifice; now Jesus arrives, and

And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Hebrews 10:10

This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the beginning of Jesus perfect obedience through life, and to death, which is the perfect sacrifice. It leaves us to think about our own obedience. Sacrifice is much easier – I’ll go to church, I’ll give some money. Obedience lets God into all sorts of things; will I do things that way – will I let God tell me how to do everything? Sacrifice is easier, because it is limited; obedience is better but it is the best and fullest way!

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Forced Smiles?

In Christian worship, some things work and others don’t. That’s OK – you’re allowed to make mistakes. If it’s just minor , we smile and even enjoy it. Other bits matter more. For example, when we say “Lift up your hearts” (as many churches do at the beginning of the consecration of bread and wine) – and you say “Yes, we are suitably solemn and miserable, you can go on, and, oh yes, ‘We lift them to the Lord’”. That really doesn’t work! – which is a pity. Worship isn’t about reading the right words from a book. Useful as careful words can be, there has to be a reality about the whole thing.

“Rejoice in the Lord” says Paul to the Philippians (reading Philippians 4:4-7). He doesn’t say “be happy”, because that would not be practical – Christians are not meant to be grinning idiots, ignorant or uncaring about the difficulties and pains of the world and its peoples. He does say, “Rejoice in the Lord always”; ‘in the Lord’ helps – this is not about me and my situation, my success and failure. It is about what God has done, is doing, and will do – but it requires me to want to see further than my own horizon.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all” – because if you can look beyond your selfish issues to God, you will find it easier to see other people and their issues also in the perspective of God. “Do not be anxious about anything” Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6)? It’s the same sort of thing – if you can see things as God does, some of them change significance.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding”, because some people will never understand how there could be another way of looking at life. But you should, for your own good. Rejoice! You can’t always be happy, but joy can find a place even in sorrow. The Lord is near – whether he is coming back soon, or near us as we worship, or both!. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8) I hope you understand – what Paul says to the Philippians is not some trivial “Cheer up, it could be worse”. This is not some emotional self-help manual, but a key part of Christian faith: you must look beyond yourself to God, beyond your situation to the actions of God, and

“Lift up your hearts”

Those words have been used for at least 1700 years – we call them Sursum Corda from the Latin – by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and some Methodist and Presbyterian Christians. Not because they didn’t understand, or couldn’t be bothered to change, but because they say something important. Make the effort – see what God has done, and is doing, and be glad of it! Our worship will not be perfect on earth, but do watch out for those words, and use them as a reminder to rejoice, not to be happy, but to rejoice.

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Bits of Good News

When Paul writes warmly to the Christians in the Greek city of Phillippi, it is clear that he feels they are close. Part of that is shown in Philippians 1:6 ( we are reading Philippians 1:3-11 ), which talks about the “day of Christ Jesus” – the day Jesus will return, with judgement. You might think that this is not a positive message, but think again. One of the attractive things about Christian faith is the sense that nobody gets away with anything, and even better because it is not our job to bring injustice to light and administer judgement. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t report criminals and uphold the law – of course we should. But all human investigation and punishment is partial and flawed, all verdicts conditional. The final justice, administered with mercy and full understanding, is up to God. And that’s good news, for all will be fair, and we needn’t worry about those who appear to be getting away with things.

Final judgement is an Advent theme, appropriate for the time leading up to Christmas. Another “Christmassy” part of this text is fellowship, the experience of Christians who don’t just try to live the same faith, but find a deep unity of purpose and values in the life they share. Paul talks here of the “partnership in the gospel” v5 which he shares with these people, who are more than friends. His prayer for them is love, knowledge and depth of insight (v9) – things that will help them live and work together, and get things right as they prepare for what is to come. It may not have happened yet, but it is an important perspective for us too! It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen for another ten thousand years after our death, but we should be ready for it one afternoon next week!

There is one more encouragement in v 6. However much we may find life difficult, or make a mess of it, God is not giving up on us! People who have begun to welcome the love God offers should know it will not be withdrawn. This is the basis of “assurance”, not a foolish carelessness with the important consequences of life choices, but a confidence that the God who has called us and given us love and forgiveness will not lose interest or change character.

Judgement, fellowship, assurance: three more reasons to be thankful for the gospel good news, and three things to share.

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Ready . .

Paul followed up his quick ministry in Thessalonica by a visit from Timothy, and then this letter (today we read 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13). Thessalonica may have been a poor community, and certainly included converted pagans. Christian faith was a problem for them, when not only social life, but political and economic life revolved around the pagan cults and practices. So their identity, as individuals and as a Christian group becomes very important.

Paul isn’t with them, but in this (the first or second Christian document to be preserved), he uses a letter to extend his presence, and offer the encouragement and teaching he would have given in person. Apart from wanting to be with them, Paul prays that they may “increase and abound in love” (v12) Of course this is fundamentally Christian, a fruit of the spirit, a basic thing for the group to hold together and enable its members. But notice: Paul does not want them to love the people in the group and recognise the difference of people outside. Though that would build up the group cohesion, he wants their love to “overflow for each other and for everyone else”

Our identity as Christians is an issue for us (and yes, it can be difficult in a work team, school or social group where we are the odd ones). So is love – the world needs more of it. Proper love, love for the difficult and unlovely, love of the sort that God shows for us, and we reflect. There is a challenge here, and a reassurance. A Challenge, to make the comment “See how these Christians love one another” be a real mark of respect, not a cynical comment about a divided and difficult group; a Reassurance, that God could and did love a church of poor people with colourful pasts, and bring them to faith.

It would probably be popular to stop with love. Paul doesn’t, he goes on to ask “May [God] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” v13. He wants these Christians to be holy – to be separated from evil and wrong, to show the character and purpose of God in their lives. Why? not just because it would be nice, but to be ready for Jesus return. That concentrates the mind – for us too. Jesus will return, and we shall give an account of ourselves, revealed as we really are. Advent is a time to prepare for the Coming of Jesus. Do some Christmas shopping by all means, but the more important preparation is of ourselves and our lives.

Love and holiness are vital for us, as for the Thessalonians. Our identity as Christians, individually and as a group, is a strength and protection. Let us value and work on these things, as we wait for the great day.

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What to take?

If you are invited out, you take something with you – a bottle of wine if you go for a meal, some flowers or chocolates if you stay, the same or a card if someone does something for you. Some families do this more than others, but we try to be thoughtful. So, what do you take to God? He is our host, we his guests. (And No, it isn’t your collection. – that’s a thank offering, enabling the worship event and wider Christian work.)

Hebrews 10:11-25 has some answers. The Jewish priests kept offering sacrifices day after day. But the author has told us that Jesus was a priest, who offered his own life just once (last week’s reading Hebrews 9:24-28) – and then sat down. Why does that matter? Because it is done, past. No addition, no alteration.

When we come to worship, we cannot bring a fee, or a fine (the price is too high), we come because Jesus has made the sacrifice for us to be forgiven.

With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

Hebrews 10:14

Not perfect as people, but able to come to a perfect God.

So, welcome to worship. We are not present as those who qualify (“We do not presume to come, . . trusting in our own righteousness, but in God’s mercy”, as the Book of Common Prayer says) – mercy shown by the provision of a sacrifice made once, once for all.

19 We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus

Hebrews 10:19

Unlike those who worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, and were kept out of the central space of the temple by barriers and a curtain, we can meet with God. So

22 So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water.

Hebrews 10:22

There is a reference here to baptism, but also the reality of forgiveness following repentance and faith. That’s how we find ourselves with others in God’s presence at worship. And there are consequences:

23 Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. 24 Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. 25 Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.

Hebrews 10:23-25

It is easy to be distracted, confused or diverted by things that happen, so we need to focus. As we do that there is a responsibility to work together, and not to forget to meet together for worship. There is a reminder of the Day of the Lord – we look to Christmas, and to Jesus eventual return. We need to be ready – me, you, and everybody around. Jesus has done something quite amazing. We can’t add to it, but we need to let people know, so that they can take advantage.

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Sacrifice.

Sacrifice is difficult in a selfish and materialistic age, yet it still happens – and we may be thankful. Some Parents learn to sacrifice, and benefit themselves by it, so also some carers, and some in public service. All can get it wrong, parents trying to live through their children, carers also trying to control, volunteers wanting to do their own thing . . Sacrifice is not easy!

Sacrifice means to give away something of value in hope of gaining. Literally “to make holy,” for many religions have had some idea of sacrifice. Christians would see it in the Old Testament sacrifices, especially Passover, but above all in Jesus. So letter to Hebrews has much to say about Jesus. (reading Hebrews 9:24-28).

What is so special about Jesus and his death?

  • it is an undeserved death – he was not guilty of any crime, yet he suffers voluntarily. He does not escape arrest, for he has come from heaven to die. This is strange, yet significant.
  • his death is the culmination of his life – not consequence of foolishness or risk taking, but living for others (and accepting the sacrificial consequences). He has gone without family, career, comfort, to do this.
  • he dies for people who have little idea what is happening, and offer no support. Yet his love is sufficient – and effective, for his death sets us free, and brings (not just to a local circle of friends, but to humanity) the possibility of forgiveness through repentance and faith.

So sacrifice is valued, not just when there is an accident with unpleasant consequences, but as an embodiment of Christlikeness – of Christian virtue. Remembering the sacrifice of others may not be comfortable – we prefer to see ourselves as the Saviour, rather than the Saved. Yet this is part of the “offence of the gospel”, the difficulty that we cannot do what is needed, and must rely on God to act, sacrificially, for us.

That Jesus died is history; that those who watched the execution understood little and had little hope is pretty clear; that they were wrong – and Jesus was right in his teaching, and his choices – depends on the Resurrection for support. He died, as a sacrifice, offered by himself. But for me? That is something that needs decision.

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Absolute Ruler

Every child knows that Jesus is the first name (we used to say Christian name) of the story character whose surname is Christ. Except that it isn’t. Christ translates Messiah, or King – and the oddity is that such an absolute monarch should be a name so commonly referred to.

For those fortunate enough to live in western democracies, equality and the answerability of political leaders are assumed. If we have affection for royal families, it is as constitutional monarchs, performing representative roles in charitable and community-affirming events. The thought of absolute monarchs exercising unquestionable and unchallenged authority is alien and repugnant.

So we need Hebrews (and this week Hebrews 9:11-14) to explain how and why Christians should even contemplate such a culturally inappropriate idea. The passage begins “when Christ came. .”. The use of the title is significant. The King came. This Sunday some of us begin to mark “Kingdom Season” – partly beginning the run up to Christmas with a pre-advent look at the reign of God. That doesn’t explain our giving this title, but Hebrews does.

This King rules, not because he has taken power by force, (although there is a story about his victory), nor even because he has replaced a worse administration, (interestingly, equally true).

This King is recognised and celebrated because, as High Priest, he made a unique and perfect offering of himself. This is no bribe to secure support. He gives what we cannot access in any other way. He rules because his subjects willingly offer their allegiance and obedience, not to a leader among equals, but as King by right. He rules because of what he gives, not what he can take, demand or threaten.

It is a strange thing, and a reminder just how counter-cultural Christian faith is. Yet it is a source of freedom, celebration and peace. No difficult negotiations here, no pressure groups, campaigning and lobbying. Christ is King, reliable, celebrated, our Lord, not our equal.

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Perfect Friend

I don’t know if children long for a perfect friend. It should be the theme of a story – an understanding and sympathetic friend, who was never absent at the wrong moment, and always loyal and able to be really helpful whatever the situation. Perhaps it is not only something for children. We are told of increasing loneliness among adults, as fewer live with others by choice rather than necessity, and much work has become less social (even before Covid working at home).

So when we read Hebrews 7:23-28, there should be points of contact. The writer begins with the way the temple priesthood of the Old Testament was interrupted by the death of successive generations of High Priest. That’s one of the problems with friends; some move away, and some die before we do.

Then there is the point about being perfect. Our friends aren’t, however much we like them and deal with their oddities and failures. The perfect sinlessness of Jesus is awesome, but not alien, because we know he lived and faced all the temptations and difficulties we share (and others besides!).

Of course Jesus is much more than a “friend”, as his once for all sacrifice which meets our need for ever demonstrates. But if this puts him in another category, it does not mean that a longing for a perfect friend is unfulfilled, or impossible. Jesus has met our need, been available – and will always continue to do and be just that. Friend isn’t a big enough word, but it is a start.

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Mediator

The letter to Hebrews may be in the form of a sermon, circulated to Jewish Christians familiar with the temple, and the role of High Priest. He had a particular role in the yearly sacrifice rituals of the Day of Atonement, standing between God and his people.

The writer recognises Jesus as the ultimate High Priest (see this in Hebrews 5:1-10) . In place of the repeated Day of Atonement sacrifices, Jesus offers himself, the “one perfect and sufficient sacrifice”. Since the sacrifice is perfect, it is not repeated, though always remembered. So we understand that Jesus brings God to us, as he lives a human life and faces temptation and suffering. He also takes us to God, opening a way we could not, and offering Intercession for us.

The role of Jesus is vital, and a separate order of priesthood is created for a descendant of Judah – this is the point of Melchizedek, the early priest and king of Jerusalem who met and blessed Abraham, for Jesus was not in the priestly line of succession from Aaron.

With such a High Priest, some Christian leaders prefer the titles of minister, elder (or presbyter, from the Greek) or pastor, rather than priest. All know that, while delighted to help people meet God, they are not essential (as Jesus was) to that meeting. Indeed, some of us prefer to stand during worship to one side, or behind a table, so as not even to appear to “get in the way”.

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Cutting

The picture of a surgeon with a scalpel poised brings mixed feelings. The scalpel is no toy, not to be left lying around. There is a fear of pain, and perhaps of needing to undergo pain as a result of necessary surgery. At the same time it may be a relief that someone is prepared, and trained, to do something which needs to be done.

When the letter to Hebrews ( Hebrews 4:12-16 ) speaks of something sharper that a double edged sword, we might not have been expecting the image as describing the Word of God. The point is the failure of those who, though invited, do not enter the rest that God has promised. There is no escape, no way of hiding or arguing the outcome.

We are indeed laid open, even dissected, in the presence of God. God’s knowledge and understanding are far more profound than our own. We easily fool ourselves, tell stories in excuse, fail to notice what does not fit with what we want to think and do. It is one of the reasons why having children can be good for parents – their straightforward honesty can spoil many poses and tear down illusions.

Our short reading continues past a natural break, to speak of a sympathetic High Priest. It may not be for us a natural comparison, but we can understand it. Here is someone on our side, with a sympathetic understanding of all our problems and temptations. More than sympathy, here is one with the responsibility and ability to bring us to God, as he also brings God to us and to our limited understanding.

It is an important balance. Jesus has clear identification with human life and trouble, as well as with God and the authority that only God can wield. At the same time, Jesus – the word of God in human form – is no softie. He is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, even when we cannot do so accurately. This is a Saviour in whom we can have confidence, but of whom we should remain in awe.

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Where to fit?

Where do humans fit in? What is our place in the universe? Some would like to see us as just one species among many, inclined to throw its weight around. Others tell us we know little of the universe, and need spiritually superior beings to guide us – or perhaps enslave us. Today we begin reading from the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 1:1-4 and 2:5-12), and chapter 2 quotes from Psalm 8. That Psalm celebrates God’s creation, and mankind given “dominion” – a word not meaning “in charge to do as you like” but given a leadership position to exercise as a responsible manager. It’s a picture which recognises the pre-eminence of humanity – clearer now than it was 2000 years ago, without allowing abuse.

Hebrews 2 uses this quote to remind us that heaven is not controlled by angels. On the other hand, neither the next world nor this seem to be under our control, so what is happening? The answer is Jesus – in one sense he is the “true man” taking his proper place. But also he is the one who is now honoured because of his death which brings us freedom

Why is it fitting that Jesus should suffer? (verse 10). Not because God enjoys that sort of thing, but because this makes his identification with us complete. Jesus is indeed our brother, though also much more. As our brother, he has experienced life as we experience it, with its ups and downs, its joy and pain. He understands temptation, weariness, loneliness, as well as the details of creation and all that involves.

So where do humans fit in? Yes, in a wonderful place with responsibility for creation. Yes, with Jesus, who leads us out of confusion to true human life and status, helping us to find our real place.

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Prayer with Everything

One of my memories of school dinners is custard. I quite liked custard, but at least in memory it always formed part of the pudding served – with fruit tart, sponge pudding, or anything except rice pudding. As James comes to the end of his letter on practical Christianity, he seems to do something similar with prayer. It goes with everything!

We read James 5:13-20, and his closing remarks begin by suggesting those in trouble pray, and the happy sing praise. He may refer to the “normal” letter ending of those times which would have wished health to his hearers. Instead, he urges prayer for wholeness when it is needed to restore health. Those who can’t get to the church gathering will have members come to them to pray.

Of course there can be confusion about the ministry of healing – after all, Christians still get ill and die. Here the phrase “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” is carefully phrased. It does not promise medical cure (which sometimes does happen) but is more holistic. There can be a “making well” in living with a condition. The important thing is to be in God’s hands.

Rather the same thing is implied by the instruction to confess to and pray for one another. Prayer is not limited to church leaders! It can be difficult to find a community where people are confident enough to admit their failures. It is easier in a small group, but wherever it can happen it is a strength, and a strengthening.

Elijah, the prophet, is quoted as an example of the power of a good man’s prayer. And finally, James ends with the challenge to rescue those who have lost their way in faith. It is not entirely clear whether the benefit is limited to the sinner who repents, or is shared by the agent of their rescue. Either way, it is a most important mission, and one we easily forget in our culture. It is an apt ending for a letter to a community which is making some mistakes and may have some in danger of going astray. James is practical to the end.

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Being wise.

What does it mean to be wise? James (and we are reading James 3:13 – 4:8) uses the tradition of wise sayings from the Old Testament (often called the “Wisdom” tradition), and will quote from Proverbs (3:34) but he is ruthlessly practical. No exams and certificates, no obscure theories. As faith must show in action, so must wisdom.

Some things aren’t wise. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are destructive; by no means unknown among religious people, they are the opposite of God’s wisdom, they cause disorder and evil. But what are the alternatives? There is a link to humility.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:17

all this is very desirable – especially in other people! The trouble is that worldly wisdom is often about “getting on” – put bluntly, outperforming others, getting to the top of the pile. That is not what James is talking about. 4:4 reminds us that friendship with this world means being God’s enemy. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything; it does mean that your outlook, priorities and ambitions must not and cannot be formed by what everybody does. We need to be careful what we celebrate – achievement yes, as somebody making good use of their gifts, persisting in training. As beating others into a lower place, making the competition look silly, NO.

Church is meant to model a form of cooperation, where everybody learns, everybody benefits, not a form of competition, where a few take prizes of precedence, superiority, title. But in our world, everybody fights everybody else. Sometimes literally, because people get on one another’s nerves. But also because of the inner conflict of disordered desire spills out. What do you want? Actually, if you can reduce it to one thing, you could probably have it. – but could you limit yourself to one thing, and pursue it systematically?

Even our personal religious life can be ruined by not being clear about our aim – what do you really want from Christian faith? Many forms of words would do –

  • to follow Jesus be his disciple and learn from him;
  • to live a life that fulfills what it was created and intended for;
  • to be a blessing to other people.

Follow through any of those, and I think it will bring you back to what James is talking about. James tells us to ask God 4:2, but also that in asking it’s no use imagining that God will help us against others. We need to ask, not for our pleasure, but for the good of all people. That would be wise.

We are easily distracted. We get another agenda from our friends, from advertisements, from “what everybody says”. God doesn’t work like “the world” – and the way of “the world” doesn’t work, because otherwise we would have lots of happy, contented, people.

God tells us to be humble, to submit to his plans and ways resisting the devil. That will bring us close to him, and we shall probably find that it brings most of the things we really wanted, leaving out some that, on reflection, would not have been so good after all.

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Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

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Just do it!

Discrimination is Out. Increasingly it’s illegal. You mustn’t make assumptions about people who are a certain colour, a certain age, or who turn up in a wheelchair – and that’s good. Christians should benefit from religious tolerance.

On the other hand, to check your tax return find somebody who can add up; to tackle the hard work in your garden, somebody over 7 stone (50 Kg); to diagnose your illness someone good at medicine, and to cook the meal you eat out, somebody discriminating.

James is talking (we read James 2:1-17) to a community of Jewish Christians where the rich get better treatment than the poor. He won’t have it, for both are Christian neighbours. It seems that while they give the poor a hard time, they also suffer being bullied or persecuted by the rich v6. Is that relevant to us? Our communities vary – but you might like to think how money complicates international Christian relations! Theology can be bent by sponsorship offers.

James goes on talk about the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Then points out that it is no good to be loving in one way while forgetting another. Christian living is not about doing the bits you like and forgetting the rest. It is no use not murdering if you’re a professional thief, being proud of not committing adultery if you regularly lie about other people. It all matters, including how we treat the poor. There’s no “balance” of failure and success – but a great need for mercy, on our part, as well as our judge’s.

Finally, the test of faith. Do they believe, these people James writes to? He doesn’t want words, if they believe, it’ll show. Real faith is not about measuring passion, but about converting into obedience. “Sincerity” is not about a style of self-presentation, or carefully crafted words. To want to do as Jesus did, to live like him and imitate him, needs motivation. Real faith motivates; if we expect to get away with fine sentiments, the faith is fake.

This is no evangelistic letter; James is not going to run through basic Christian beliefs or outline the gospel. What he wants to make sure is that people who live as a Christian community should behave as a Christian community. Not hot air, but hot meals for the hungry, not fine words about Jesus, but the hard work of obeying him and becoming like him. It is a searching test, and too often churches in the past have been marked as failing by the communities in which they live.

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James the Practical

Over the next 5 weeks, we shall be reading James’ letter. Today we start with James 1:17-27 (or read the whole chapter?) and begin to discover a practical faith which has much to offer.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above” verse 17. God is good, and that is something to celebrate. But what do you mean, can you justify that? Well James points the way. v19 Everyone should be quick to listen and v25 “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it”. We need to listen, to pay attention, to go on learning. In what ways is God good, what has he done – what is he doing now, what is he like, would you want to know (and could you avoid him if you didn’t)?

I wonder, does every Christian go on learning; do I remember that I need to?

It’s not enough just to listen, you must also SPEAK. Not too fast – let what you understand shape your words. v26, and there is a warning about anger v19b,20 There is a lot of anger around, often from wrong expectations (the obsession with me and my way, rather than a concern for all the community). Anger can motivate us to put things right for other people, but too often, like so much speech, it is just selfish. (If you also read the lesson from Deuteronomy, you will have heard about the need to pass on God’s Law, another aspect of the need to speak). James will have more to say about speaking , but let’s remember our need to speak well, and use speech to help us learn the way of Christ.

Listen, and then speak, and then DO. We have a problem today: some Christians want to do as they like (not listening), some get deeply into theological argument (and don’t act). But when we do something, we find out how good our understanding and motivation really are. James lays it out for us. Don’t just “go to Church”; Listen, so that you can learn and grow closer to God; Speak – speak well, to help your learning, and to help the people you speak to; and act on what you learn.

Christians have been observed over the years; the present generation has found us wanting. They do not believe, from the evidence of our lives, that God is good. It is a fair challenge, which we need to answer in practical ways.

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Warfare

Paul is writing a letter, but he is under guard in prison (we have come to Ephesians 6:10-20). He uses the picture, setting faith in the ordinary world – even his. We can imagine him listening to soldiers boasting of old campaigns.

He asks first, Who is the enemy? The temptation is to identify a person, a party, an opinion. All mistakes. “we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces “ (Ephesians 6:12) This is very important – there is a Christian fight. We may not like violence – and that is good – but faith is not a genteel discussion, but a struggle. To live as a Christian is to face opposition, difficulty, and temptation.

Paul picks up the soldier’s equipment to explain. (Perhaps he watched the guard coming on duty shed the gear in which they had just been inspected?). We notice the need for practice and experience (verse 13). (In passing we might add that the Roman army used discipline and working together to overcome larger numbers). What does he examine? The belt is Truth. It’s not about winning the argument, but about keeping with the reality of God. Righteousness is a breastplate. When you are accused, you need to be sure of forgiveness and status as a free child of God.

Shoes (sandals, well think boots) are Good News – that travels well. Faith is a shield; you don’t know or understand everything – but trust that God does. Salvation is helmet, protecting the brain that matters, even if other bits suffer. Prayer reminds you to work with God always – individual enterprise is dangerous!

There is only one weapon (despite many pieces for protection) – the word of God as sword. Not hard and cutting words, but the ones God gives which go straight to the heart of the matter.

That, says Paul in prison, is your equipment. Learn to use it, practice and get comfortable with every bit before you go into a serious fight.

Perhaps you still don’t like the thought? You wanted a quiet life, not a punch up? Will you end up with the Jews in Capernaum Jesus asked “Does this make you want to give up?” (John 6:61). Or are you with Joshua and his family (in Joshua 24), deciding to be with God and rejecting the alternatives.

This military metaphor is – only a metaphor (the weapons are differently allocated to spiritual qualities in other places). But it is also a reality to be faced while there is time for reflection.

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Wisdom for Christians

If you are continuing the reading of Ephesians this week (with Ephesians 5:15-20 – though it is interesting to see that the lectionary misses out sections on avoiding immorality and on the mutual submission of husband and wife!), Paul has some practical wisdom. We need it, because now as then there are plenty of ways to get life wrong. You know that – don’t worry about the details, and don’t waste time pointing at the people who have made a mess of things. Get it right, and then you can offer encouragement; live wisely, using your opportunities, and you will be an advertisement, and be in a secure place to offer help and support.

It’s not just a question of keeping out of trouble. What does God want you to do? Sometimes that involves patience, and waiting which is difficult. Often it involves being of service – something undervalued. Always it involves obedience; and that is never easy. Life as a Christian is not just up to you; it is for God to direct you to where you may be useful.

So we need to be filled, not with the latest alcopop, but with God’s spirit. There is some similarity – remember how the onlookers on the day of Pentecost said the Spirit-filled disciples were drunk? They were confident, joyful, unafraid – and sober. I suspect that many of those who cannot party without large quantities of alcohol are actually looking for the freedom and joy which comes from another Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to Christians – but not in bottles, and not automatically. We need to ask, and be ready to receive him, and to go on doing that.

Verses 19,20 remind us that early Christian worship involved the Psalms of the Old Testament, and the hymns and songs of the New Testament and later. And why? So that

  • the congregation was instructed
  • God was praised (and heard to be, by overhearers)
  • and life lived with thankfulness to God.

Are we doing that? It will be good to return to singing together again in Church soon – but remember you need to sing (loud enough to be heard, soft enough to hear), and to sing gladly and confidently. But even without song, how are we to live as Christians?

  • Wisely, in times when it is easy to go wrong;
  • Looking for what God is calling us to do, relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance,
  • and with thanksgiving, in music, and in daily life – living it as we sing it, with a bit of energy and some confidence, even when we have to work at both.
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Make it up as you go along?

Today we read on in the part of Ephesians where Paul sets out the consequences of Christian faith. (The reading is Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2)

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Ephesians 4:25

Last week I pointed out that the letter to Ephesians divides at 4:1 between what God has done (chapters 1-3) and the consequences (4-6). There is always the temptation to think we know already. How often do we hear “I know right from wrong!”. I suggest we need to look carefully, to re-read the instructions. Look at this verse. Lying is normal in many societies, now as always. Yet it causes great problems.

If Christians were known as people who always spoke truly, think of the difference it would make! There would be great demand for them in politics, management, unions, caring professions, police . . But Christians aren’t known for telling the truth, which is a pity.

But it is about far more than job opportunities. Think about ourselves. Lying is often about boasting, or trying to protect yourself. What if we told, and knew, the truth about ourselves? Self-assessment with humility and honesty, but not leaving out the positives: gifts, opportunities, abilities to serve. There would be real advantages, but how are we to get there? We would have to develop the habit of speaking the truth among ourselves – with proper respect, and honest re-direction of misunderstanding and false ambition.

Then, what about the truth about other people? Are they celebrity superstars, or rubbish? Neither, of course. They are sinners, like us. Flawed, but with the hope of repentance, forgiveness, and new life given by a gracious God. We need to be honest about that, and ready to speak of it.

I could go on. What about the truth about what we are doing to our environment? About the true need for Fair Trade? How does God truly see our church, and others? If we were known as people who could be relied on to tell the truth, with gentle respect, trust among Christians would increase, giving a new quality to fellowship between believers. Christians would be more valued in the community.

So, yes, truth is important. It needs more thought and practice. And this is just the first verse of 8 in the 2nd reading of 3. We don’t know it all; we need to look more carefully, and then with God’s help, to practice!

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So What?

If you have been following readings from Ephesians, you may remember Paul has first covered “theory”. He has talked about the blessings received through Christ, the dangers of that time (not only as Paul was a prisoner), and the unity of Jew and Gentile in a shared faith. So we come to Ephesians 4:1-16 (or 1-24), and Paul comes to the consequences of faith.

The first thing is unity, mutual dependence – according to one commentator “the fundamental principle of corporate life”. The focus of this unity is not common ritual or practice, but one Lord. The body looks to him, the Spirit comes from Him, the faith (and baptism) are in Him.There is great danger when unity is focused elsewhere – in a building, in a denomination, in habit. These destroy unity, and provide no base for humility, gentleness, patience and love. On the other hand, loyalty and commitment to God in Christ lead on to these. This is an important part of what Paul is saying. “All life should be lived as an expression of and response to God’s calling”

Then (vv7-16) comes a surprise. Rather than the victor demanding tribute, Christ gives gifts, to equip the Church and facilitate the ministry of all its people. The pattern is clearly unity, not in uniformity but in diversity – a variety of gifts used to promote mature faith which makes a resilient body of believers not easily mislead. It is interesting that the most “gifted” (for all are gifted) are themselves to be seen as gifts, not an authority figures, and are themselves part of the body. No role here for superheroes, just the call for every one to use what gifts they have, and encourage others to do so.

If Christian people are to be drawn together by loyalty to one Lord, and enriched by gifts deployed for the good of all, then in 4:17-24, (missed in our Sunday sequence – we start at v25 next week) as in 4:1 they are to live a new life. The selfish, morally blind life is to be abandoned in favour of a new way. The knowledge of God is important morally as well as intellectually, and Christian life is lived for God’s purpose, not simply our own pleasure or advantage. So v23 you are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”.

There is no shortage here of specific, and demanding, instructions (you may want to take away and think about those that are new, or that seem to affect you directly) – but everything is linked back to faith, and to what Christians have been given. Nothing here is “because I say so” or “we have always done it this way and so must you”. Paul’s appeal is that Christians should live “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” 4.1 Those who are most aware of how much they have been given, how greatly they need rescue from themselves and their world, are most likely to be ready to hear and respond to the call to a new life. I hope that includes us.

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Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

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Oh heavens!

Have you ever thought that you might end up in heaven – and discover that you really didn’t like it there? (CS Lewis developed the idea in his book “The Great Divorce”). It’s not that I want to worry you, or cause nightmares, but it will certainly be very different!

The idea came to me as I thought about Ephesians 2:11-22. The question of Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds doesn’t seem very important to us now. The Ephesians – like most of us – came to faith from various positions, but few were of Jewish family. Paul is quite definite about there now being just one family and household of faith, which might seem uncontroversial.

Until you think about what it will be like to experience family life with all sorts of other Christians. How will you take to South American Pentecostals, or Asian members of ancient churches, or first nation people, or . . In heaven we shall be brought to understand that the God who has brought us together is greater and more precious than any of our distinctive traditions, or the families we come from, the lives we have lead . .

So, it may be all right in heaven, but perhaps we should start preparing now? After all, if we can think about what really matters and lasts for eternity, and what is going to be left behind, would it not smooth the transition? Or do we find that we are too attached to some temporary things, and want to say that they are really much more important than – well, than God might think?

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Back to normal?

The Covid pandemic is not “over”, but we are thinking of a return to “normal”. Our reading from Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) may take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. The letter begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work. Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about (as soon as we are allowed!) and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at this point. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of the last year lead on?

Why not tell this story now? Because it doesn’t fit with a secularised history. But our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not a story re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – life and love in bad times as well as good. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving lockdown and going back to routine. But while the world is tempted to write another history, we take with us the strength gained from the story written here. We know that there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

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Fireworks

We like to do well, and to encourage others – celebrating family and friends’ achievements. But we can overdo it! A proper ambition can become stressful competition of the most unhelpful sort. What to one person is friendly rivalry and motivation is to another a load of expectation and the fear of failure.

Paul had a problem with the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). He found that they were preferring to listen to other teachers, whose example was harmfully competitive, perhaps with a financial motive. His reaction is not to enter the competition, but to “boast”. There seems no doubt that “the man” who had the revelations he talks about is himself, but he prefers to boast about his weakness, so that he can focus on the strength God supplies.

This may seem remote from our experience, yet it has importance. On the one hand, we are warned against being competitive in telling stories of our religious experience. There is no merit in “experiences” unless they lead on to a changed character, and a life of faithful and effective service – and that can be seen without publicity. At the same time, we are reminded of God’s help, to provide what is needed (yes, not always what we want, or even think we need!). The focus should be on God, not on self-dramatisation.

On the other hand, those who choose Christian leaders, whether deciding which group to join, or which person gets a job, need to beware. The qualities that matter do not include an inflated sense of self-importance, nor stories of dramatic spiritual experience. If there is faith, the experience will show in gifts and character. If there is only a desire for excitement or the unusual, there is danger.

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Giving

How do you feel about about talking about money? Some don’t like it, others assume its fundraising and they’ll be asked to contribute. Yet Christians often hesitate to mention giving – as I am doing now. (And not only am I not asking for money at the moment, I make a point of seldom doing so.)

Money is personal, private. Yet so are most of the issues that faith deals with. – and many of them we need to talk about because they are controversial, Christians taking a view, even a stand, that is not generally agreed. More than that: we may dislike a world in which everything has a price, but the fact remains that Christians will be judged by whether their spending matches their faith talk.

So what can we learn from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15? Paul is reminding this congregation about a collection for poor Christians in Judea which they had started, but seems to have got “stuck”. He says some important things:

v8,9 the generosity of Jesus in becoming poor for love.

v13,14 a question of equality – perhaps reversing in future.

Giving is important, but it is important that giving should be an act of love (not like shutting up demanding children, or escaping the charity collector who makes you feel guilty). We give, because Jesus teaches us generosity, because we have enough to be able to give thanks to God by offering back some of his generosity to us.

There’s more, though. v12 talks about giving proportionally. I have often found people with the least to be generous. Problems are found with those who have good incomes, who try to give the minimum. Giving proportionally means a fixed part of your income – so more if / when you have more income, less if you earn less. You might like to make the calculation. How much do you (or your household) earn? If you add up your regular giving, what proportion is that of your income? The Old Testament expected 10%, my church organisation suggests 5% to church, allowing for other giving (and perhaps the social welfare aspects of taxation) – but it gets less than 3%, and suffers as a result.

This project of Paul’s was very important to the Church. It brought together Gentile and Jew, helping create a unity. It still does – and we should think about giving to Christian causes and charities. Nobody else, outside faith, can be expected to support them, yet they bring together brothers and sisters in Christ.

I haven’t asked you for money – I’m not going to. But please take seriously the Christian faith, which deals with many very personal areas of life, and has instructions (yes, instructions) about your view and use of money. You need to give some away, regularly, in proportion to your income. Doing so will help you to recognise the generosity of Jesus, and help you be part of his family.

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Value

What’s the most valuable thing in the world? Gold, platinum, plutonium? Health, a brain that works? As Paul argues with the Church in Corinth (in 2 Corinthians 6:1-13), who rather prefer other teachers, he urges the value of grace, and the need to do something about it NOW. Not when we feel like it, or get around to it . . . but NOW.

That remains very relevant for us, as does

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; .

2 Corinthians 6:3,4

Some translations talk about “God’s servants” – as we all are; older translations use the word “ministers”, which again we all are, despite our different gifts and functions, as all serve to commend the gospel and make Jesus known.

Paul lists 9 trials in the next two verses – most of them we escape. But why did he have such a hard time? The same old reasons:

  • because people didn’t like being shown up
  • because the spiritual battle concentrates on opposition (who would you target if you were the devil? – the effective or the weak?)

We may not have such a dramatic list of hardships, but need to remember that both our taking the opportunity of God’s grace, and our service / ministry of sharing the good news of Jesus, will attract temptation, opposition, and unfair criticism. Paul’s response is not to withdraw, or appeal for pity. He understands what is going on, and finds fulfillment in the struggle.

in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;

2 Corinthians 6:6,7

define how it is to be done, and the next three verses see a paradox. The response is varied, but there are opposites in evidence. Yet this is nothing more than following the leadership of Jesus, who experienced the same acceptance / rejection, fame / infamy, acceptance / rejection.


This part of 2 Corinthians is very much a part of Paul’s struggle in the first century with the Church he founded, which tended to divide into groups and find other teachings more attractive than true Christian faith. Yet it remains appropriate for us. The appeal not to waste the grace of God, but to act now – that is vital when so many put off making decisions or commitments. The encouragement to serve by commending Jesus, even though it brings spiritual opposition – here is explanation and encouragement for the work we must set about together.

There is no comfort blanket offered here, only the most valuable thing in the world (free), and the way to use it successfully.

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Weigh it up

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters (and we continue our reading of 2 Corinthians with chapter 5:6-17):

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6

It seems that Paul is thinking of death – whether because of his age, illness, or opposition which might secure his execution. If in the past he as assumed (and wrote as if) he would be alive at the return of Jesus in glory, he now wonders about the other alternative. Not a favourite activity, but sometimes useful

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Corinthians 5:9,10

This is not to deny that we are saved by faith through grace. The Christian who lives by his belief is safe, but our life work as Christians will be judged. Paul explained it in 1Corinthians 3, using the example of a builder working to build on the foundation of Jesus:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

For Paul, this is a motive for Christian evangelism. He then goes on to a great statement:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

2 Corinthians 5:14,15

We’re dead – not because of some disaster about to happen. Because Jesus died for us, we die to a selfish life. All life is now for him, under his direction. We don’t “get” this all at once. Even if we say we are committed, over time we discover there are still bits of ambition, or things we want for ourselves, that have nothing to do with Jesus – and do not fit in with a life now lived for the one who died for us. Our sense of judgement changes:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:16,17

What makes a person amusing or boring; what decides our leisure activities, choice of work (employment, or volunteering); a new perspective. More than that,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

2 Corinthians 5:20

We are not trying to make other people like us, nor even to introduce them to faith as we know it (so that they learn our worship, our church life). We are ambassadors – for Christ. The aim: that they meet Him, and come to live for him – but in the way He directs, according to their situation, ability, gifts . .

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters. But he has some very important things to say!

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All Talk.

There’s an awful lot of talk. Even if we are relatively alone, the chatter of the older, broadcast media is now amplified by social media. Sadly, a great deal of it is bad tempered and complaining, even abusive. Christian communities ought to be better, kinder – but the theory is by no means always realised.

When Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1) “I believed; therefore I have spoken”, he takes this further. The Holy Spirit reminds us that the grace we have received should lead us to speak in thanksgiving and praise. It is not something we are good at! (Well, I speak for myself, you may make your own assessment of those among whom you live and worship). Embarrassment at being thought “pious” – or just “odd” – tends to keep us to the social norm.

That social norm tends to grumbling and complaint. Of course the sun doesn’t always shine, and there are always some people who really face crisis, pain and trauma. But it is all too easy to concentrate on the negative, compare our lives with those who have more, and not less, and feel hard done by. Paul urges us to get a sense of proportion. What we experience now – including the problems: physical, mental and spiritual – is temporary, as we move on to the good things God has prepared.

So, what shall we talk about? Can we re-educate ourselves, not to a false and unnatural pretence, but to a focus on the goodness of what God gives, now and in the future? Can we make ourselves more available to those who suffer by being content in our own situation? Can we be witnesses to grace in our present time and place?

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Practical Christian Living and Trinity

People might object that thinking about God, especially in terms of the Trinity, takes away from the importance of the gospel message and Christian living – but in Romans 8:12-17 we see practical instruction in Christian life with an account of the three Persons of the One God.

Paul continues the argument that it is no use doing as you want and feeding your own ambitions and appetites (even if that is to be religious or “good”). That way lies disaster. The alternative is a life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit, freely given to believers. In this way they become children of God – we might say “God the Father”, from whom every family is named (Ephesians 3:15). The ancient world knew about adoption, and took it very seriously.

In this way, as children of our heavenly Father, we share the benefits of Christ, the natural Son, and are given a place in that family.. Paul has been describing Christian life, lived not by moral effort, but by grace. It makes constant use of forgiveness to bring and keep us in relationship with the three: Father, Spirit and Son. The Trinitarian language is almost incidental and quite natural. At the same time, the effect is to create a life, supported in these different ways, but never torn between the different persons offering support.

Thinking of God can be confusing – our minds are too small. What we are given is a glimpse of wonder, to encourage praise, worship and thanksgiving. At the same time, we are told how this God brings us to share in relationship, both with God and with others. Relationships which we often get wrong, but which imitate the wonder of divine love.

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The Holy Spirit

On the Day of Pentecost many will turn their thoughts to the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. But we are also given Romans 8:22-27 to consider.

Paul speaks of vision and hope – not a hope of going back to some former “golden age”, even the events of that first outpouring of the Spirit on Jesus followers. He recognises that we have not “arrived”, that we live in a situation still incomplete. Our present life is not the final stage, and we look forward. Vision is always important, but the content of the vision also matters.

Paul encourages us to “our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies”, that is the full experience of God’s love and transformation which will come after our life on earth. This isn’t all there is, and however hard we look to anticipate God’s Kingdom, in our relationships, our service and our worship, there is more and better to come. We can be confident of that because of what God has promised.

The second thing is that, even though we don’t really know what we should be praying for, the Spirit prays for us and guides. It is another source of confidence. We are not guided only by human plans and projects, but by God the Holy Spirit. We can join in with that prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is a well known phrase, which acquires greater meaning, as do phrases like “in Jesus name”, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Praying in tongues is also an action which helps offer our obedience and encourages us to take direction.

Pentecost added a new celebration to the festival of harvest and the giving of the Law when the Holy Spirit arrived so dramatically. We rejoice in that, but our Spirit given vision looks forward, to what is yet to come in God’s mercy and grace.

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Confidence

Confidence has taken quite a knock in the last year. For some of us, there is hope that we are emerging from the worst of the Covid disruption. But our assumptions about “normal” life have been shaken. Do we become cynical about everything? We can’t. We still have to make a living, be governed, and make decisions. To make decisions you take advice, even if you wonder about it.

“We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.”

1John 5:9

Its good to have something more positive to talk about, (this week we read 1 John 5:9-13) and Jesus is certainly that. The focus of God’s care for humanity, he arrives after a long build up. The Old Testament journeys through creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, entry to the Promised Land, exile and return, . . And there are documents too: Law, Prophets, Writings – All point to Jesus: Messiah, Servant, Prophet, and much more. In his 40 days of appearance after the Resurrection he has explained the scriptures. Now, with his ascension, there is an ending (more to come – next week).

John in his letter explains how Jesus has given evidence of God, and of how God has spoken through Jesus of a way to Life.

“Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”

1 John 5:10

This is more than an enthusiasm. Belief moves on to confidence as we put it into practice, and begin to see God at work. We can always doubt it, but that is still a vitally important step in the growth of a Christian life. We find it odd to think we might be judged for unbelief (look at the next verses), and yet if you know the story (and this is only for those who do) you must respond: favourably, to learn more, find life, and serve, or sinfully, not to be bothered; to resist a claim on time and energy.

John writes to Christian believers, not that they are perfect, but that believing and following Jesus is the key which gives life, now and eternally. They know, as we do, that not only are there many who have not heard, but some who are deaf by choice, and so put themselves under judgement. His focus is not there, but on the Word of God. God’s Word to us is a human being, and much more. To have a trust in Jesus is to have much more, and the confidence that he will lead us and keep us safe in all our adventures with him.T

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Does belief matter?

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

That is odd – We tend to separate belief and behaviour. Believe what you like, behave as we tell you – like everyone else. John does not agree, as becomes clear in 1 John 5:1-6. He is very concerned about behaviour – love and keeping God’s commands, but sees belief as key. So – what difference is this belief going to make?

It is not difficult to imagine that seeing and hearing Jesus would have lead John the apostle to admiration, enough to motivate time and attention for learning. Perhaps for many followers now, that’s about it. Others will come to obedience out of fear. God is God, active and real, in charge, and will eventually require an accounting of all of us. I’d better behave, and live as someone whose life will be inspected. I obey because I’m frightened of the consequences of not obeying, here and hereafter. It’s real, it motivates (if not very well), – but it’s not what God intended.

But if Jesus is the Messiah, God is doing something important – and wonderful. Yes, we might admire Jesus, for his dedication, his non-violence, or other qualities. Yes, we might want to give thanks for his achievement. But increasingly we are drawn in, and (if we let it) God changes us. We obey because we want to be part of what God is doing. We prefer his vision to any other. We want to see the victory of Jesus won today. This is a different sort of obedience! Let’s look again at what John is saying:

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

because belief has a big effect on behaviour!

“and whoever loves a father loves his child also. This is how we know that we love God’s children: it is by loving God and obeying his commands.”

1 John 5:1b,2

If we really think that God was answering all those promises about a Great King in Jesus, then you have got to love it, and be drawn in to join others who are working with it, to apply it now. We don’t obey so much because we fear the consequences of disobedience, but because we love what God has done and is doing. The way to get things done well, is God’s way (described by his commandments).

every child of God is able to defeat the world. And we win the victory over the world by means of our faith. Who can defeat the world? Only the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

1 John 5:4b,5

So, are we invincible superheroes? No. But we are taking on the world and winning, as we live by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, and go a different way to many. Belief – belief in Jesus – is the vital ingredient in a life that loves and wins.

Many won’t believe that. But you might.

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Loving truly

True love – or perhaps more accurately, the failings of untrue love – has been the subject of more songs and stories than have ever been counted. How are we to judge the true from the false? John has a no-nonsense approach when he says “ This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (The start of this week’s reading, 1 John 3:16-24).

It is hard to deny that this is a compelling demonstration of love and, as the earlier verses of the chapter have argued, one that should provoke a response. Imitation is a form of admiration. What we worship will shape our lives and characters. So we are told that our love should reach out to those in need.

We might want to use the excuse that our offering is so insignificant compared to the needs we see on television news and documentaries. It is easy to forget that the earliest Christians lived closer to hunger and homelessness than we do, yet were known to be generous. If modern communications make us rapidly aware of disasters and shortages on the other side of the world, they also enable an informed and professional response. We do have a responsibility to give, generously and repeatedly, and to do it in the most effective ways we can find. We need to make sure that our giving is a significant proportion of what we have available.

Our response to those in need should never be limited to charitable giving, however. We need to be informed, and to use our votes and our campaigning weight to encourage medium and longer term answers. At the same time, we are faced by a climate emergency. We can lobby, and give, but we also need to change our personal behaviour to reduce our impact on the environment and encourage others by our example to do the same.

Even that isn’t enough. The needs will change from time to time and place to place. At the moment racism is in the spotlight, and needs us to affirm the value of every life. There are issues of housing provision, children denied a secure family upbringing, modern slavery, unemployment – and I will have missed several. We cannot be closely involved with every issue, but need to deal with those closest to us, and to deal with them within the love of God. That does not want to make the wrong suffer, nor to expose people to shame. Rather, it looks for the restoration of a proper order, with relationships restored and life more nearly as it should be. It looks to the Kingdom of God, where God rules, and we are able to enjoy our place and our life within God’s love.

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Fraud?

There is a thing called the “imposter syndrome”, which leads well qualified people to think that they are a fraud, and do not deserve the position or qualifications they have achieved. It may be that, having been shut away in Covid lockdown, more of us will feel strange as we take up former work or responsibilities.

Certainly, when John writes of Christians as the loved children of God ( we read 1 John 3:1-7 ) there will be some who feel “What, me?”. It is amazing, and sometimes challenging, to recognise ourselves as having this status. Imperfect as we, and others we join in our congregations, are, we are still given this identity. Children of God, with all that implies for now and the future.

It is this gift of love that motivates a Christian response. Being loved, we want to learn to love. Being forgiven, as we still need to be, we come to ask questions about how, if God forgives us, then others can also be forgiven. If God can forgive them, how can we withold our forgiveness? And so the questions go on. A God of truth is trustworthy and promise keeping, so we should learn to be the same. A creator God values the world, and it is time we looked to the impact our lives have, and waste and spoil less.

John knows that some people in those communities claim to be perfect, while others insist that what they do has nothing to do with their “spiritual” state. He will have none of it. Christians are God’s loved children; they remain liable to make mistakes, even serious ones, and need forgiveness. At the same time, the love that reaches out to us demands a response of imitation as we value the God who offers so much. Getting it right is not easy, but the effort is essential, and rewarding!

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Reality, not scapegoating.

Our world is very confusing. Sometimes it encourages you to do just whatever you feel like. Then without warning it is mercilessly looking for a scapegoat, because somebody must be responsible for what has gone wrong. It seems the first century was rather the same, and John writes to his Church in a very realistic way. We read 1 John 1:1-2:2 (that’s the first letter of John, not the gospel).

“Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him. If, then, we say that we have fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions.”

1 John 1:5,6 GNB

Is the Christian community supposed to be different? Is it realistic to expect us to live in the middle of our society, and hold other values? Yes. We are called to be light in darkness, and salt in rottenness.

  • we have the details laid out for us in the Christian Way: love, truthfulness, submission to one another, work, generosity, honour . .
  • we have the motivation. God has loved us and done for us what we could never do, our response in thanksgiving is invited.
  • difference is vital to our witness. We are not a club, doing things that keep us happy, but God’s people in the world, advertising his plans.

But just as we are coming to terms with the call to be different, we come to:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God, and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10 GNB

Part of the Good News is forgiveness – not forgiveness once, then perfection. We continue to fail, and while we can’t be complacent, we mustn’t stop trying, nor pretend to a perfection we don’t have. We have to be realistic. We shall fail as individuals, and as a community; sometimes just struggling to make progress, sometimes more dramatically. We all remain capable of getting it badly – seriously, scandalously – wrong, and we need to know that to guard against it.

There is an argument over

And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.

1 John 2:2 GNB

Traditional translations (KJV) have “propitiation”, while some prefer “expiation”. Expiation, they say, removes the “defilement” of sin, while propitiation is about buying off an angry God with sacrifice. That’s not a Christian idea – but neither is the idea that God just has to chill out and forgive. Sin is not some ritual defilement; it is the very personal breakdown of relationship, caused when we rebel against God’s rule and direction. It is very personal, and serious – to the extent that it cost Jesus his death. John Stott writes, Christian propitiation “is an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God.” I think we need the language of propitiation, understanding that there is nothing petty about God’s response to human sin.

However you take it, Jesus is the pattern and the answer. Wherever his people gather, the calling of Jesus remains:

  • to be a holy (different) community
  • to be a humble community, that knows its failures, and looks to Jesus for forgiveness

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Concentrating the mind

In the days when I was a student among Christian friends, we were sometimes asked, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” As long as it remains theoretical, it is an interesting question. Nowadays, I suppose, some would simply want to avoid trouble, and get him shot without argument, but I think we were a bit more assertive. I was reminded of this by Paul’s opening of 1Corinthians 15:1-11

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don’t, your faith was all for nothing.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-2

And the message is very simply summarised – nothing about morality, liturgy, lifestyle – all those are consequences.

“I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Simple as that. Jesus died for our sins (and the death was real, because he was buried). Jesus was raised to life (and the rising was real, because there are a whole string of witnesses, including Paul). He didn’t just die. Most people manage that, one way or another, but he died for our sins. For the detail in that, we are told “according to the scriptures” Paul means the Old Testament, because the New Testament doesn’t yet exist, so especially Isaiah, and the other passages which help us understand significance of the Cross.

Jesus didn’t just appear to people, like a ghost, or as some outpouring of group hysteria. He came to individuals and groups, in a variety of places and times of day. Often unexpected, sometimes unrecognised for a time, they believed in his life. Their conversations, and reconciliations, were real. Many would die; nobody suggested a fraud. This is the earliest Christian Creed (apart from “Maranatha”, and the phrase “Jesus is Lord”, perhaps). It reminds us our our roots, and Paul tells us of the need to stay with this faith if we wish to benefit from it.

So, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” It would be easy to get it wrong: nerves, or especially in our culture, arrogantly saying, “Do this . .”

I think my best suggestion would go something like this:

“Excuse me, I’m Andrew Knight. I don’t know if there’s anything you particularly want, but I wonder if I could tell you a story? (It might stop there if there was a negative answer, but I might be able to go on:)

It was a long time ago, but there was a man who lived an exciting life, helping many, and winning respect from ordinary people. He made some enemies, and although he did nothing wrong and they had to fix his trial, they got him condemned and executed. His friends were in despair, shocked and frightened, but slowly reports came in that he was alive. They couldn’t understand; some had seen him buried. But it was true, Jesus, somehow, wonderfully, was alive. He appeared to different groups, in different places, they talked, ate, and their lives changed. The story has spread, and there are still those like me who believe it.

I hope I never have to tell it in those circumstances, but, like all of you, I have to try and find ways of saying things to people every day. One of the challenges is to find the time, and place, and way of saying, the really important things. It isn’t easy, but it’s a good start when you are clear about the basics:

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. . . . . Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15
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Attitude

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the background to a passage, like Philippians 2:5-11. Is Paul quoting a poem or hymn – and what difference would that make if it was true? Does that mean he agrees with every word, or is he just using something his readers already know to drive home a main point? Even more tantalising, is this a piece of encouraging teaching, or a gentle rebuke to leaders who are getting too competitive, or status conscious, or just proud of their position and achievements?

A little thought brings us back to the point, or perhaps points. “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”, or as the Good News Bible puts it, “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. Does it matter if Paul is quoting another writer? No, these words have to be taken seriously whoever the original human author was. And it is important we consider the words and what they have to say about Jesus, especially if in the next few days we will think again about his Passion and Death. That attitude? That readiness to endure quietly, to give in such an extreme way?

We could find it easier to speculate about whether this is encouragement or rebuke for the Philippian church leaders. We know our churches are not perfect, consisting as they do of sinners who may be forgiven, but are not yet sorted out. No doubt that was true of first century Philippi, too. But the question rebounds when we have the courage to ask of ourselves, “Can you take encouragement here? Does this help to heal wounds you have?”. After that, we may be able to face, “Do you understand the need to follow this lead, to repent of complacency, pride, failure to give the right lead?”

Of course, we may recognise that we are being told that it is not all about us. There is a focus here on Christ, the humble, victorious Christ. Do we need to redirect our focus, to find a centre there. Faith is not in ourselves, nor should we allow it to be re-defined as self-help, life coaching, or any other sort of egocentric rebranding.

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. I have a lot of work to do on that, but I can understand where the goal is.

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Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

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Basics

There are churches, and speakers, where you know that on every occasion you will be told that Jesus died for our sins, because, they say, that is the gospel. And they are right. The gospel is about Jesus, and the New Testament is quite clear that the climax of his ministry was his death, which was in some way for us. I can think of at least 2 reasons why Anglicans might not seem to say this so often. One is that they bore more easily, and don’t take to repetition. A better one would be that, though Jesus death for us is the centre of the gospel, there are many implications to work out, and enough to think about to keep many brilliant men occupied for more than a lifetime.

Nevertheless, if we are to talk of Ephesians 2:1-10, we shall have a timely revisiting of basic gospel, which we ought to have clearly in mind as our Christian foundation.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-3

Despite a generally held opinion, we learn there is nothing natural in going to heaven; we deserve judgement, and a very different fate. Perhaps that is something to come to terms with?

It is good to remember what we once were (and, especially if that is difficult, what we may again be tempted to be) – living according to our own desires. How often that is now given as a description of “retirement”! Be careful; there is nothing magic about Christian habits to stop you falling back into unfaith and God’s judgement. If that’s the bad – well serious – news, the good is wonderful

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:4-9

God loves us, and reaches out to help, – not because we are good, not because we deserve or earn it; but because he is that sort of God. Forgiveness is free! It’s very difficult to take that seriously. We are confused by people whose love is not unconditional, but it’s true. So we are free, and need to live like that!

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Yes, that is what we are made for. But the good work comes after forgiveness; it is a reaction, not a payback. Today many will celebrate family, and some will re-open old wounds. Yet the Christian hope of life is in a family where all are loved – loved and offered free forgiveness despite what they are and what they have done. It’s quite a family.

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Together round – a Cross?

How do you feel about people whose idea of a day out is to visit the Chamber of horrors? Do you really want to know the technical details of gas chambers, electric chairs or guillotines? No? I find that encouraging. But why do Christians meet around a CROSS? People generally find “Christ crucified” a strange message, let alone Good News (we are reading 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ).

If God wanted to sort out the world, why not do it? We can’t explain God, but perhaps he could have abolished the troublesome human race, or just taken away our freedom to do evil? This would not be our preference, so what can God do to avoid wasting the lot of us, yet sort out the mess?

The answer is – the Cross.    And it is Good News, however odd, because it is about Victory over: Death, Evil, Temptation, plotting enemies, Failed friends, [Helplessness, despair, insignificance]. In fact everything we need to beat, because the Cross is the cross – a painful death by torture. It is about a depth of commitment (God’s), about not crushing the weak or the despairing, and about sharing in the worst of earthly life. It is NOT about personal success, or pretending. It has nothing to do with “image” or “status”. In fact the opposite, it is a constant reminder that left to ourselves, we invent methods of torture.

So what’s the problem? God isn’t playing the games people like to play. The Jews (verse 22; and many others) wanted miracles – let God do something dramatic to catch attention and entertain. The Cross is dramatic, but not entertaining; its too painful, not just for the victim. It doesn’t flatter us. The Greeks (verse 22) and many like them want wisdom.    They liked to debate, and wanted to find truth in assertions of human dignity, in the heroic potential of the human spirit. The Cross tells us of humanity in such a dangerous mess that they couldn’t help themselves, and needed to be rescued.

The Church in Corinth wasn’t rich, didn’t have any geniuses; they were people others liked to make fun of, and God chose to use to show his power.    That’s the problem, as Christians we are people of the Cross, we can’t say how wonderful we are, but verse 31.

“Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:31

So I hope you understand why the Cross is much more than a symbol, and stands as a summary of Christian faith. Faith which is Good News, because God doesn’t sort out the world by wasting us when we fail to meet his standards, but chooses instead the difficult and painful way of suffering the worst to offer us the best, and leaves us a reminder that shows the depth of his commitment, the greatness of his victory, and the depths to which we fall if we choose to go it alone.

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Good enough?

Paul faced fury in some quarters for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism; it provoked persecution and the division of the Christianity from Judaism. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest? In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important. It may help to look at what is being said around our reading of Romans 4:13-25. In Romans 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law, that is the Old Testament as we know it. As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed. That’s a long time ago, but the relevance to us is in the question: “What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven?”

There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the spiritual continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In many ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior.

Wrong, says Paul. Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God. What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. v35 “us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our sanctification.” We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised.

What caused a fuss in the first Century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way like this. What causes division in the twenty-first Century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

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Suffering

Some people find it difficult to talk about suffering, perhaps because of bad experiences in their past. Others talk about little else. Hopefully Christian faith finds a balance. But it cannot avoid the subject, because it reflects so much of human experience.

When we come to the first letter of Peter, chapter 3 jumps in at verse 18 (1 Peter 3:18-22 is our reading)

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

1 Pet 3:18

This is suffering with a reason, not some perverted psychology. As Jesus endured undeserved suffering, so Christians do not welcome hardship, but accept whatever comes as part of following their Saviour. You don’t have to enjoy it – it would be a bad thing if you did – but need to understand the possibility.

Then (18b-20) Peter goes on to talk about how Jesus, after his death, preached to the spirits in prison. There are different opinions of what exactly that means: does he [1] proclaim the gospel to those who died before his ministry, without the chance to hear the gospel, or [2] announce his victory to the powers of evil? It doesn’t matter too much to us, though we would do well to remember the judgement on those who refuse obedience.

The reference to Noah, and the saving of a handful of people in the ark from God’s judgement on the wickedness of his time, brings us to verses 21,22. Just as Noah’s ark floated people to safety, so Christian baptism is a way of escape to safety. It’s significance is nothing to do with being physically washed, nor is it a magic spell. Baptism applies the power of Jesus victory over evil and his resurrection; it needs faith – and can be disowned by those who do not live by faith – but it remains a powerful sacrament of God’s ownership of those who choose to belong to Jesus.

We may be glad if our lives escape extreme suffering, hopefully remembering those who do not. Perhaps we can try to find the balance between accepting the risks of Christian living, and the joyful celebration of what we are given.

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Enlightened?

Lockdown has reminded us – perhaps I should speak for myself – that we fail to get around to things all the time. It is not that I am too busy, because now there is less to do. Nor do I have nothing that I would like to get done. The fact remains that I haven’t done it.

Some of this is trivial, but not all. There are things I want to do and should do, which I haven’t done. Paul suggests in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 that his opponents are blinded by the “god of this age”. Their bitter opposition to his message and his ministry comes from a blindness to God’s will and activity. It is a blindness formed from compromise and failure, the “hardness of heart” which scripture sometimes speaks of, as repeated failure has dulled people’s perception of the way things are – at least, the way they are seen from heaven.

That’s a sobering thought. Could my failure to tidy up really be linked with an unwillingness to hear and respond to the gospel? It’s not as simple as that. (I don’t think I am pleading self interest here). But the “god of this world” is all around, encouraging greed, pride, harmful competitiveness, as well as the “it doesn’t really matter” and “why should I bother” inertia that lurks for many of us.

Paul talks about the light God separated from darkness at creation. The light of day and night, but also the light of understanding and confusion, of good moral judgement and bad. That light is seen not only in creation, but in Jesus. Is there a reference here to the “Transfiguration” – the time Jesus appeared illuminated in the presence of Moses and Elijah, as well as three disciples? We can’t be sure. But Jesus certainly has the light we need, the way to show up life as it really is when the deceptive adverts and the lazy carelessness are removed. And it is important that our life finds that external illumination if it is to succeed, and even more if it is to offer encouragement and direction pointers to those around.

The thought of being blinded is horrible. Most of us would rather lose other senses, even limbs, than live in a world of blur or darkness. Why is it, then, that we so easily fall to blindness to the things of God? It is worth thinking about – though not as an excuse to doing what we should be doing!

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Creation, and Redemption

Creation Sunday – the second before Lent – takes us to Colossians 1:15-20. This is important, not just for what it says, (which is quite a lot!), but also for what it brings together. Some will want to focus on Redemption, looking at verse 20 and being reminded of the importance of Jesus death in our reconciliation with God. This is “core gospel”, always something to value, delight in, and pass on in worship and conversation.

But let me also point out what else is said. Verse 15 explains that Jesus shows us what God is like. After all the arguments about how God is greater than our minds can understand, arguments which are true, we can see as much as we can understand in the Son of God, living as the human Jesus.

Almost before we can hear that, verse 16 insists that the Son of God has a role in Creation. There is a significant detail, “all things have been created through him and for him“. (my italics). Creation remains important for our Redeemer. Creation is not just a prologue, a necessary introduction before the real story begins. It is part of God’s whole purpose and plan.

When we think about this, other details begin to attract our attention. If we go back to verse 20 where we started, we notice that the reconciliation the Son achieves is not only for humans. “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven,”. All things – more than people. Exactly how that works is beyond me, but it convinces me that Christian life can never be limited to a concern with Redemption (ours and other people’s) but extends to a care for Creation. We have good news about our Saviour, and we must encourage all who will to be good news for the health of our planet. Not either / or, but both and.

There is no shortage of organisations to help us with a Christian concern for the environment (A Rocha and EcoChurch come to mind, but many mission and relief agencies are becoming more aware of environmental casualties, as well as their own impact). What is more worrying is the apparent division between Christians who take this seriously as part of their faith, and those who see it strictly as an optional enthusiasm. This reading in Colossians makes clear that Creation and Redemption are both part of God’s plan, both demand attention and action, both are at the heart of the faith we need to practise. It’s not the only text on this subject, but let’s start here.

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War!

Readers of these comments probably know that they follow the New Testament reading (having compelted the gospel cycle) for each Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary, used by many churches to choose their weekly readings. This week Revelation 12:1-5a might not seem a preferred text for comment, not least because it has many parallels in pagan myths of the ancient world.

Yet, as so often in scripture, there is something valuable here to note and ponder. If John is aware of the “other” stories – and it seems very likely – he nevertheless gives Christian point to this version, and makes it encouraging.

The battle between good and evil in the world we live in is an ancient story. Here the woman, unlike the woman of chapter 17, has true glory in the sun and moon. While we might think the one who gives birth to the male child is Mary, mother of Jesus, the crown of twelve stars suggests a wider reference. She represents the people of God, with the twelve tribes of Israel as a crown. (And the twelve apostles will take forward this people into a new covenant).

Of course the destruction of the son, the Messiah, is the aim of the evil one. We are reminded it did not, and does not, happen. Despite all the show of strength, evil cannot prevail. There is conflict, and there are those hurt in the struggle who carry their wounds for a time. Here is the encouragement. Not in false promises of a world without the conflict between good and evil, the need for struggle to confront temptation, avoid distraction and do good. The hope we are given does not avoid reality, nor minimise cost, but looks to assured victory not of our own making.

I wonder if you like metaphors of conflict in Christian life? Some prefer to avoid them, offended by their violence and occasional bloodthirstiness or desire for revenge. I suspect those who have suffered most, and over years, will find more help. There is a violence in the attack on the faithful, and any holy life. It may be more hidden in the diverse and liberal societies of the west – though it may also be hidden where the faithful are compromised, and their witness represents no threat to the other side. It still seems to be true that any congregation which makes energetic efforts to live the gospel will find opposition, perhaps from unexpected directions. At the same time, those content to comfort themselves by traditions they find pleasant, without looking further, may understand nothing of the war devastating other places. John does have something of value in telling this!

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Hallelujah!

“Hallelujah!” rings out in heaven. We may be surprised to find this is the only place the command (meaning “Praise God”) is found in the New Testament, but know it from the Psalms, and many Christian songs. But what is going on in Revelation 19 (we read Revelation 19:6-10)?

Christians have been taught of the victory won by Jesus and his death, demonstrated by his resurrection. Their life is lived in thanksgiving and imitation of their Lord. They find a victory through the power of the Spirit even though there is temptation, suffering, and all is clearly not yet what is meant to be.

In the book of Revelation “Babylon” is a code for the oppression of Rome, and more widely for all that tempts and misleads those who are attracted by the truth in Jesus. In our twenty first century, we are aware of some Christians who face direct, life-threatening persecution. Yet for many of us our experience is apparently milder. There is the marginalisation of faith as a “personal matter”, the constant distraction of the media and now social media with non-Christian ambitions and values, and the lure of possessions. Sorting out the good things created for our use and delight from their selfish misuse and camouflaged invitation to evil is difficult.

Thus there is proper joy, and an opportunity for praise, when the evils of “Babylon” are finally seen for what they are, and condemned to destruction. Only then can the faithful be finally made one with their Lord – the image of the marriage of the bride (church). We know the church as a group of imperfect sinners, relying on constant forgiveness – as is highlighted from time to time when particular failures and abuses are exposed. But the church is given holiness. The fine linen, even though “the righteous acts of God’s holy people”, has been crafted by the Spirit, and given, not achieved.

Looking to this time, and continuing to struggle with the temptations and distractions which confuse us, we are pointed forward. “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” It is good to know that there will be a time when all is clear, but that is a strong reason to get it right now. The temptations that “it will always be like this” and “it doesn’t matter” or even “it’s only reasonable to compromise” are – just temptations. However hard it may be to follow the leading of the Spirit in the steps of Jesus through confusion and difficulty, our destination is clear.

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The Lamb.

Revelation takes us to heaven – a good idea – where we meet the Lion of the tribe of Judah – the powerful King of the worldly jungle. The metaphor is mixed, because we then discover that the Lion is a Lamb – in fact the power and authority of this figure come from his sacrifice (today we read Revelation 5:1-10, and this is verse 9: )

And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Revelation 5:9

This chapter, with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus in John 1, is the origin of the Lamb and Flag emblem (not unknown as a the name for a pub!), and of the title “Lamb of God” (which we sing about in the “Agnus Dei” ). But it is not just that we celebrate the victory Jesus wins by offering himself in this way, powerful and effective that is in changing everything.

The idea of the scroll is that it is God’s plan – his plan of love and mercy for a world gone wrong. No wonder John cries bitterly when there is no-one worthy to open it! – opening it is not just to read the words and understand what is planned, it is actually to put it into operation. Who can sort out the mess, who has the power, the determination, the authority, the competence? Only the lamb of God, sinless – without blemish as a sacrificial lamb had to be – and willing.

That’s quite something, but not all. We read of this cosmic drama, but mustn’t miss the ending.

. . because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.’

Revelation 5:9b,10

God works out his plan in Jesus, and in choosing to use people like the disciples, and like you and me. They are not just to run errands and blindly follow instructions, but to be partners in the work God continues. Nathanael is to see angels – God’s messengers. Samuel is to be a prophet. We are to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God. Priests aren’t mindless slaves; they are meant to know what they are doing, to be professional

Yes, today is about disciples, and about our call and commitment to follow Jesus and be his people. But it is also a reminder that we are meant to know God well enough to recognise his voice, to be partners in what he is doing. We are meant to use mind, body, energy in service.

The Lamb of God is worthy – and he has made us a kingdom of priests to serve him – intelligently, energetically, creatively.

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Vital spark

Does the Holy Spirit work in you? That’s a dangerous question. An extravert will tend to answer YES, and introvert will be less sure, and an Anglican like me may be more hesitant. What if we ask: “Would your friends recognise something of God in you?” – it is still difficult, clouded by personality. But it matters as we see in Acts 19:1-7. Paul, arriving in Ephesus, asks a group he finds there. They are disciples, but of John the Baptist; they have commitment and some understanding, but like Apollos (see the end of end Acts 18), not full understanding or attachment to Christ.

The confusion is still with us. The title of “Christian” can mean “a nice person”, or “caring” – not always a disciple of Jesus. These men in Ephesus had repented – turned away from evil and wrong, as John the Baptist had taught. Repentance, a change of direction and focus, away from evil and self, is still basic to conversion and Christian life.

But with turning away from is turning to – do you remember the question asked in Baptism? “Do you turn to ___ ?”
Yes, Christ. Jesus, as showing us God, and the right way. [If you read Genesis 1, did you notice God separating darkness and light at the very beginning?]

Today’s gospel tells of Jesus, baptised by John at the very start of his ministry. It is then that the Holy Spirit comes on him, and from that time that he heals, performs miracles and teaches. This, the time of Baptism and the coming of the HS, is the start.

For us, too, Christian baptism is important, and the Holy Spirit who gives gifts. There are all sorts of gifts; the spectacular are not necessarily the most important. But Does the Holy Spirit work in you?

If you are a baptised Christian, looking to live as a follower of Jesus, then the possibility is there. It would be good to look for the Spirit, welcome signs of his activity, ask for his presence, guidance and strength. The Spirit makes the difference between the well-meaning and those who share in God’s work in God’s way.

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A new normal

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our readings will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians (we read Ephesians 1:3-14) begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work! (even socially distanced work!). Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at Christmas. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of Christmas lead on? Apparently not, in the secular / supermarket / primary school version.

And why not? It doesn’t fit with a sentamentalised version of the story. But why should it? Surely our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not the story we have re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – bloodthirsty rulers and, yes, a baby born to die. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving Christmas and going back to normal routine. But while the world leaves a fairytale, ruined by reality, we take with us the strength gained from the story of God’s coming. We know that his coming is just the first part, and there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

“In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

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Fellowship

I want to talk about fellowship – because it is a key thing that makes Christian groups different. It is often confused with friendship, or with a cosy atmosphere, fellowship is both more and less. Friendship involves knowing people, choosing to spend time together, or at least in communication (perhaps by social media), because of things in common – activities, interests, attitudes, taste in music, food, . . . Fellowship is not about liking another person or group – it is about sharing faith, or in Christian terms, commitment to Christ. So I may have fellowship with those of very different backgrounds, cultures, experience, and may not even share a language. But I share a common obedience, and will share heaven!

So Jesus calls disciples, not just to do the work (be sent out), but to be with him: learning, including learning from being together as disciples. Today (we read 1 John 1) the writer talks about the experience of faith “ so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.

The word comes again, as we realise fellowship is not something to be turned on and off: “ If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” verse 6 and the answer: 1 John 1:7 “but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

What makes a Christian group different? There is nothing wrong with other groups, for work, sport, social action – but a Christian starts with Christian fellowship, and goes on with the direction and strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that happens formally, sometimes it is much hidden. Fellowship is not a “natural” thing, like the attraction felt by some friends. We have to work at it, with people not like us, for the sake of our shared loyalty to one Lord, Jesus Christ, and our owing everything to him.

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Ending well.

How do you “round off” a year, or a letter, or anything else for that matter? Paul seems to have understood the need for summary and suitable conclusion at the end of his letter to the Romans. (We read Romans 16:25-27 today – the very last words of the letter). Perhaps he is anticipating that it will be read as Christians gather for worship, for this has something of the feel of a service ending – and makes a very good one!

Paul is never going to be content with just repeating a convention. These words are full of thanksgiving, first for God’s ability to establish, or to make these believers strong in their faith. Of course they may need it – the life of the Christian community goes on, and will face both individual and corporate challenges. At the end of 2020, many Churches will have been shaken by the Covid pandemic, but the same God is able to strengthen us and make us stand firm.

The Christian group in Rome was “mixed”, including both Jewish believers and those of a non-Jewish background. Some of the tensions between the groups are reflected in the letter. Paul’s conclusion emphasises and summarises his point: this inclusion of both is part of the gospel message, and, though once mysterious, had been prophesied.

All of that – the argument of the letter, the working out of the gospel Paul has written to explain and proclaim, all is for the glory of God. It is not to build Paul’s reputation, let alone his wealth. It is not about the status of the faith community. It is all with the purpose of bringing glory to God through Jesus Christ. That is a challenge for every Christian and every congregation, but if it puts us in our place, it also gives us focus and hope. We are not called to “success” but to live in a way that brings glory to God.

To that we can say “Amen”, and end a chapter.

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Rejoice! (properly)

How can you always be joyful? – isn’t it insensitive when suffering and tragedy abound? What if you don’t feel like it? – don’t you have a right to be miserable?

Perhaps we ought to look at the context of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. Looking back through the letter, there has been talk of:

  • the Life and Faith of the Thessalonians
  • Paul’s Work (well, God’s really); his desire to visit again
  • and in chapter 4, the consequences: A Life that Pleases God

What does God want? – well, very much what we want in our better moments: Love, peace, mutual service, holiness of life. So if they, and we, have absorbed that, we should be Ready. Ready for – The Lord’s Coming. And the words we read today are at the end of chapter 5 and the letter.

So “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances”. It’s not insensitive in context. Don’t “bounce” on the miserable – but help put their problems in context. Face death in the context of resurrection, pain and hurt in the context of incarnation and healing.

No, you don’t have a right to be miserable! All you have is given by God (sometimes spoiled by your misuse – but there is forgiveness). At least some sorts of misery imply that God isn’t up to his job – he’s given the wrong tools, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know. (Yes, there are other sorts of misery. We can all be overcome for a time by tragedy, and cannot offer an easy solution to mental illness, but – do I have a right to choose to be miserable, NO, as far as it is a choice, I don’t).

Be joyful. How, if I don’t feel it? By giving thanks, by not restraining the Holy Spirit, by avoiding evil. This isn’t a forced Hollywood smile, a backslapping heartiness, or the suggestion that real Christians must be extravert personalities. But it is a serious instruction.

“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances.” Joy, even at times of difficulty, is a blessing. Thanksgiving can be carefully practised until it becomes a habit. So – Praise God! not as a cliché, but as a deliberate decision, especially at times of stress. Thank God! even when you have to think quite hard what you can thank him for.

The lives the Thessalonian Christians led were certainly no easier, more comfortable or more secure than ours, – perhaps they needed these instructions, but so do we. As a preparation for the coming of Jesus, and as a serious part of our faith, let’s set out to do this:

“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus.”

1 Th 5:16-18

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Urgent Patience.

I suppose many of us wander between enthusiasms. Earlier this year climate crisis was in the news and attracting our attention (quite rightly!). Then the Covid pandemic edged it out of our attention, and now the possibilities of a vaccine feature alongside the varying estimates of what Christmas will be like.

The thought of Christmas might remind us that we aren’t yet ready. Present planning, card sending, and arranging family meetings are one thing, being ready for the coming of Jesus another. This pre-Christmas season of Advent is not just about preparing a celebration of Jesus’ birth, but of reminding ourselves of the promise that he will return, bringing an end to the world we know, with judgement, accountability, and the full arrival of the Kingdom he began on earth.

As we read 2 Peter 3:8-15, we are reminded not to get impatient. If some Christians in Peter’s time expected Jesus return rapidly, they needed to remember that the delay allowed time for repentance to some who needed it – and God was wanting to see them saved. We face the same temptation – “Will anything ever change? Don’t I just need to fit in with the way things are in the world around?”, with a firm answer that it is not the people around us who set our ambitions and standards, but God. The whole idea of Jesus return, and our readiness to give an account of our lives, and our use of all God’s gifts, is important and has an urgency – we are not promised any further warnings!

The urgency is real – this needs to be a priority now, not “when I get around to it” or “when life is less busy”. At the same time, we need patience. God does not have to explain the timing to us. If Jesus’ return happens after the end our our life, we have no complaint. Quite the opposite, we will have had more time to practise, more time to see the benefits and blessings of a life lived as a disciple, learning the ways of love and faithfulness. More time to advertise and recommend them. There is no place for panic, or frantic confusion. What we need is, yes, urgent patience. Urgent – being ready must be a priority, and move to the top of the “to do” list, but patience, to take time to learn, to repent, and to go on repenting and reforming all the areas the Holy Spirit highlights for our prayerful attention.

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Really?

At first sight, the opening of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:3-9) is very strange. Paul knows full well that there are lots of problems in that congregation. In the following chapters he will touch on the various cliques dividing the group, on his own position as a leader, sexual immorality, litigation, confusion about Christian status, freedom, discipline, complacency, worship, the resurrection . . . We can just imagine the sort of article a local paper might write now if it got wind of half those goings on!

Of course, this was Corinth, the seaport where everything happened, and the Christians were new to this faith, and only just exploring what it meant for them. They weren’t a well educated or wealthy group.

Paul isn’t joking when he talks about the grace they have been given, or the fact that they “do not lack any spiritual gift as [they] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” They may still need to learn how to use some of those gifts. Certainly they have a good deal to learn about what Christian behaviour involves. But they have been given so much, and Paul is quite honest as he gives prayerful thanks for what has begun. – Not only begun, for he has confidence that a faithful God will continue, and bring them “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

That is probably the point for us, too. We can look at the list of failures in that ancient church, but may be less ready to face the failings of our own! If we were really such good examples of Christian life, would there not be more questions – that is positive questions, from those outside who want to know about the sources of our hope, love and faith? The reality is that every church organisation, each congregation, is less than perfect. But as we work and pray through that, is it not also true that we have been given grace, for which we might properly be thankful? Is it not also true that “we do not lack any spiritual gift”?

Yes, we might like to draw up a list of what we would like. But do we actually believe God has left us without anything we need for Stage 1 of our progress from this point in faith and time? Or are we just refusing to pray and see the first steps of our way forward, a way which may be less familiar in a post-Covid world?

Paul gave hearty thanks for what God had done and was doing for a poor and struggling church, at the same time as they were causing him some anxiety and problems. We also live in a world of less than perfect Christians and congregations, but can we give thanks for what God has done, is doing – and is now ready to lead us forward from?

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Power!

Most people do not show their best character when they are threatened. To be – or to feel – powerless is unpleasant and difficult. That is true spiritually, too, so it would be nice to say “Just do this”. That would be misleading. Yet Paul has some answers, even though he writes from Prison. (We are reading Ephesians 1:15-23).

Paul, writing while in prison, can still say, “Thank God for you” 1.16. And he wants them to understand something – this is his prayer – and my point: Paul prays the Ephesians will v18 know “How rich are the wonderful blessings God promises his people”, and also
“how very great is his power at work in us who believe”
so there is power.

What power​? It is not always obvious, and we have to be careful not to fool ourselves. What power is there? Verse 20 the same as raised Christ from death, and “seated him at his right side in the heavenly world” – the position of authority.

It needs understanding, because to many then (and now), Jesus was a loser who got himself crucified. You should know better than that, but see the complication. This is not “superhero” power, for selfish display. This is the power of God to reconcile, heal, bring about a better answer. It can be so well hidden that we miss it, but it is available, and should be used.

So we are not powerless, but have the greatest possible power. It’s just that we have to understand, and learn to use it! There’s a footnote. Christ is given all power, and is given to the Church. Do you see the Church as a place of power? Not in its politics or failures, but how about it’s healing, it’s forgiving, its redirecting people? That can be powerful, when we learn to apply it properly!

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Is there an End?

Where will it all end? – and will there be tears? The early followers of Jesus came to believe he was the promised coming King, the Messiah. He spoke of God’s Kingdom. When he met opposition and slander, they found his acceptance of suffering, and then of a criminal’s death, difficult. His resurrection, and the Old Testament prophecies (not least Isaiah’s Suffering Servant), helped them to see it all as part of God’s plan to save.

So the Christians met, worshipped, and wondered – Where would it all end? It is a question, not only for their times, but for ours. It has been echoed by many in times of war, persecution, and suffering. Destruction, death and disaster add weight to it. What can we hope for? What is the point? Political or economic insecurity adds to the doubt, but Christians ought to have some answers settled. As we remember the consequences of conflict elevated into war, what hope of peace, of justice?

Christians remember Jesus identification of John the Baptist as Elijah, and understand the “Day of the Lord” as the day Jesus returns with power for judgement. That day is mentioned in Matthew 24 and 25, at the Ascension, and in 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5, (and today we read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) among other places. The language is pictorial, the main theme clear: Jesus return brings to an end this time of uncertainty and conflict. God will rule, and his enemies be disarmed and judged.

In the Old Testament (we read an example in Zephaniah, but it starts with Amos, and is reflected in many prophets) a popular idea of the Day of the Lord – when “our God” would come to defeat “our enemies” – is turned round. Amos insists that God is not impressed by the unfaithfulness of his people, and the Day of his Coming would bring judgement on them, as well as on others. (so Zephaniah 1:12 “I will punish the people who are self-satisfied and confident, who say to themselves, ‘The LORD never does anything, one way or the other.'” ) By the time of Malachi, the last words of our Old Testament: “But before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

When? We don’t know. 1Thessalonians 5:1,2 Suddenly and unexpectedly; but that is not to say we are unprepared. Paul speaks of a thief in the night. You don’t know when – but if you know he is coming, you can be ready. Valuables hidden or secure, doors firmly locked, people safe. We don’t know when, but we are to be ready. “We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1Thessalonians 5:8

The Kingdom of God – his rule of justice and love, is something great, to be looked forward to and celebrated (at least by those who try already to live its life). The Day it comes and replaces all opposition is beyond our imagining, and unlikely to be uncontested. We need to be ready,

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Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

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Bleak?

In Wales, we are half way through 2 weeks of Covid lockdown; England are just about to start 4 weeks of staying at home; other places also struggle. It is hard in many ways, and for once we share in difficult times.

Christians have to be realistic, and this is not an easy situation – but neither is it the full story. November 1st is often kept as All Saints day. Having survived Halloween, we turn to celebrate and give thanks for the less famous of God’s people. Revelation 7:9-17 is the fuller of the New Testament passages set for the day, and it has an encouraging picture to offer. Here is a picture of God’s kingdom, with much to celebrate and much to look forward to:

  • here is a crowd of people united. It’s not that they are alike: they are of many backgrounds, races, languages; but you might say they are singing from the same hymnsheet. They have a common purpose which makes their differences insignificant. Their focus is God, and together, happily, they worship
  • God is at the centre. Not because he insists it be so, nor because he is some sort of successful dictator. He is recognised for his love and faithfulness. This crowd know how he has healed, forgiven, and brought them together in a wonderful way which has given freedom, not taken it away.
  • And then there is the comfort and reassurance of the closing verses

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Revelation 7:15b-17

This is God’s kingdom, which we want to celebrate and live in. We start now, knowing that we haven’t got it all sorted, but that turning our backs on what is wrong and following Jesus is the way in, even when its not easy. Some of that crowd of saints had a hard time – so did Jesus – but the kingdom is worth it. Those promises are kept. That hope is realistic. That destination will not be in lockdown. Join the celebration, enjoy the view, keep on until arrival.

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This we know – how?

The last Sunday after Trinity is often kept as Bible Sunday, and we read Colossians 3:12-17, which has some important things to say. We begin by recognising that we are “God’s chosen people”. God is indeed kind: seeing the impossible state we were in our rebellion, the Son comes, not just to teach or demonstrate, but to die for our sin and open our way to life in heaven.

This we know from scripture.

Paul moves on to the consequences of the gospel. The life we are to live is a response to what God has done, and what God is, and is to be a life powered by the Holy Spirit. There are many ways this works out, and we are given an example in verse 13.

This we know from scripture.

There is to be love, and peace. Peace not from an easy life, but from confidence in God, a firm foundation, knowing where we shall end up (even if not the details of the journey to get there)

This we know from scripture.

The message of Christ is to live with us. Teaching about life, truth, and good news – still important for us, when many understand little or nothing of it. Once again, I am encouraging you to look at a passage, and see how it works for you and your life. Where do we get this from?

This we know from scripture.

Everything is to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. This is not a “formula”, but the source of power, and the spirit in which he lived. How are we to avoid the pitfalls, including sentimentality, mistakes, and the conflict of personalities?

This we know from scripture.

I hope this run through Paul’s instructions has been encouraging and helpful, but especially that they have taken you back to what he actually said. Scripture is not like the Mona Lisa – precious, but to be locked away, examined only by experts, and carefully guarded. Scripture is like a favourite tool, to be kept at hand and used often, valued for is effectiveness and practicality.

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Tired?

October 18 is kept as the day to remember Luke, companion of Paul and writer of the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, so it is easy to see why we read 2 Timothy 4:5-17 – Luke is mentioned as being with Paul. As Paul writes to Timothy from prison, the first thing to say is that he is feeling sorry for himself (v6) – yet he wants his possessions brought to him. Verse 16 suggests he is alone, and perhaps feeling a bit vulnerable.

I hope it is not perverse to find that encouraging. It can be hard to be a Christian, and to go on in that way. We are called to receive God’s grace, to be re-made to advertise what he can do; but we are still – us. Sometimes the Christian life can be tough and depressing, and we need to think of being halfway to heaven as we struggle.

Perhaps that is how Timothy, as well as Paul, felt. Left to lead and sort out a Church, he is reminded “ proclaim the message” v2, even though there will be those who don’t want to hear the gospel of Jesus who died to set us free and leads us into holiness of life. There are times when the gospel becomes unfashionable, “uncool”, but it is always more than a personal preference, and the Christian must announce it by action and explanation. We could speculate about why people’s attention wanders off to other things – here it seems to be an ascetic way of life which is the alternative – but the point is to focus on God, what he has done and what he asks of us.

We, if we are those well established in church, have to remember the need to provide forms of service appropriate to outsiders and newcomers. How often the Sunday service is formed by the preferences of those who have been members for a long time, without a thought for those who might wander in out of curiosity – and find it all incomprehensible. We need to speak in services in ways that people who have never ever been to Church can hear, and understand as God’s word for them.

That’s not to say that everyone who hears will join up. I’ve already mentioned the way the gospel can become unfashionable. In the closing verses Paul speaks of opposition. Some have given up (v10), others have been longstanding opponents (v14). It’s not our responsibility to catalogue their mistakes, or act as policemen. Paul leaves that to God (as we should), but recognises the reality of a conflict situation (which hasn’t changed).

There are many encouraging voices in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 “ but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” is one – but be careful how you offer such verses to others. They’re not a “quick fix”! Christian life can be hard, as Jesus found and warned his disciples. There is hope, and support, and reason to go on – and none of that cancels the tiredness and difficulty of the hard times, or the need to be gentle with those wounded in Christian conflict.

Perhaps Paul shouldn’t have been feeling sorry for himself, but I hope we can be sympathetic, as well as recognising the need to proclaim the message, and recognise desertion and opposition as realities. Perhaps it will help us to pace our own faith activities and endure.

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Fixed (idiot) smiles?

There’s a rather heavy feeling around at the moment. When Covid started, we thought a few weeks would see the worst of it done – but almost 6 months later, we are heading into worsening statistics. There are no promises of a quick letup. Beyond that, and little mentioned, is the economic recession that follows – tighten your belts. If your pension is safe, it is unlikely to rise much.

So when we read Philippians 4:1-9, there is a danger that the words fail to be understood. Worse, that we take them as irrelevant, even insulting. What does Paul mean, “Rejoice”? How are we supposed to, without being unsympathetic, even crass? – Well, let me tell you, because it is important.

What I said about the situation we’re in is true. There are lots of problems, and not a lot to be happy about. That was probably true of life in Philippi, too. Paul writes the letter while in chains in prison (1:13). He knows that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry” (1:15). He has had to ask the Philippians to remember the example of Christ – reading between the lines, we wonder if conceit or ambition (2:3) were a problem there. He has to remind them (2:14) “do everything without grumbling or arguing”, and to ask for help getting Euodia and Syntyche to make up their argument (4:2). Philippi is like any other church – less than perfect, with a number of “issues”. Yet Paul says Rejoice!

How?

Why?

The first clue is in the word. He says “Rejoice”, not “Be happy” or “have a party anyhow” (just as well, because lockdown restrictions, which you should be observing, don’t allow that). There’s a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a reaction to everything going well. Joy is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and we’ll talk a little more about what powers it, making it possible even in hard times.

The second clue is the next phrase. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. When our life is hard, God is still good, his love and faithfulness are dependable, and God is in control. That is something to rejoice in! It doesn’t mean our life will be easy, but it does bring a sense of confidence that whatever the conditions, whatever disasters threaten or come our way, God will not be overcome, God’s purposes will not be prevented. That does need an element of faith. I don’t know what will happen in the next year, 5 years. But I have faith that God can and will be in it all, working good for those who will face life with faith.

And we could say there is a 3rd clue in what follows:
“Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” It is because the Lord is near we don’t have to be angry, we don’t have to worry and irritate. “Do not be anxious about anything,” because, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, God knows, and with God you can find a way – no, better than that, the best way forward.

At every eucharist (the Communion Service, in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and often Methodist and Presbyterian services) the leader says “Lift up your hearts”. It is so old and widespread it has a Latin name “Sursum Corda”. The answer is not a muttered “We lift them to the Lord”, but an act of faith, a choice to see the world, not as it favours us, but as we look for God at work, and find joy in that.

We can’t all be happy all the time. We shan’t all be happy all of the time. Sometimes your brothers and sisters in Christ will need your sympathy and support. But we can be joyful, and respond to the call to rejoice. Even if it’s as hard as doing press-ups, I will lift my heart to God, to enjoy what God is like, and what God is doing, because it is good, and worth enjoying and celebrating.

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Challenges.

One of the dangers of my Church is that it has such nice people in it! So easily it can become a club of well-meaning and like minded people. If we were all long sentence prisoners, slaves, or addicts our need would be clearer and less escapable. Paul would understand the danger. He has quite a record of achievement, – lays it out in Philippians 3:5,6. (Today we are reading Philippians 3:4-14). Yet he chooses to rely instead on Christ. There are several challenges here, but also much comfort.

First, a challenge to think about Christian achievement ( and to think about it more than secular achievement). We note people of significance – those with academic distinction, high office, or public achievement. We are not so good at celebrating those who persist faithfully in unpopular, underfunded or badly managed enterprise. The care worker who makes extra effort, and so on . . . Alas, we are less good at honouring those whose faith and Christian service are of lasting significance. I don’t mean we should resurrect the forgotten saints of past times, but that we need to think about our priorities – the more when Paul’s ambitions seem odd. The comfort here is for those who will never wear a medal on earth, but whose reliance on Christ earns them a heavenly record.

Secondly, a challenge about where our confidence should rest. Could we say with Paul we don’t care about our social status?

 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

Philippians 3:7

The comfort? It’s never too late to start. Disciples change! Part of this (or is it another point?) is the righteousness which comes from faith, rather than law (verse 9). The challenge is to rely on grace, forgiveness, Jesus, not on being “good” or respected. It is a good deal harder than you might think. The comfort? For those who find it hard, they can look to Jesus.

Is it time to stop yet? Perhaps, but a final challenge is keeping going to reach the goal verses 12-14. We haven’t arrived yet; we can’t give up and rely on our past. The comfort – yes, once again, it is never too late.

Paul was a great challenge, even insult, to his contemporaries. His transfer from Pharisee to Christian won him many enemies, much misunderstanding. We need to face up to his challenge – perhaps it is not his but Christ’s – to “conventional” religion. There is comfort, too, but only when we take seriously the call to “regard whatever gains we had as loss because of Christ”

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Attitude, what attitude?

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

Philippians 2:5 GNB

– says Paul (in our reading of Philippians 2:1-13). This is our pattern, our example. This is the route that has been pioneered for us, and left for us to follow. Scholars suggest that Paul was adopting a hymn here. It makes no difference, for whatever follows “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” is going to be a hard act to follow.

There is also a question whether Paul was tactfully skating round failures in the leadership at Philippi. Were relationships there not so good? was there disunity, boasting, ambition and selfishness? The answer is not essential to our understanding. Churches are not perfect – we are a congregation of sinners. But we need to know where we are heading, and what we are supposed to imitate, how we are to work towards our goals. Again

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

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Therefore . .

“Therefore . .” at the beginning of chapter 12 of Romans (we read Romans 12:1-8), Paul has completed his explanation of Christian “theory”. He will now turn to practical Christian living. But he makes it very clear that this is not detachable from what goes before. You can’t skip the first bit, because without it, this doesn’t make sense. It won’t even work.

Why is that? Surely Christianity is a very practical way of living? Yes, but it depends on God, faith, and grace. Without these, it fails. If you ask a question such as “What do I have to give God to get the thing I want?” there is no sensible answer. God doesn’t bargain. God gives generously, and includes us (if we are willing) in working for love, peace, justice . . But the good things you get are not your decision.

So – the section on practical Christian living starts with a call to be transformed. Yes, by all means be honest with God and express your hopes, desires and fears. But let the Holy Spirit get to work on you. Allow yourself to be changed, so that, gradually, you see more of God’s perspective on any situation. Don’t let yourself be bullied or manipulated into what is fashionable, or clever, or . . But look for what is good and sustainable. I don’t mean boring, or old-fashioned. There is plenty in God’s work that is exciting, creative, beautiful.

As your mind is re-shaped, (and yes, no matter how good your upbringing, we all need re-shaped minds!), look further. What gifts has God given you? There are lots of different ones, nobody has them all, but equally no Christian is left without a gift. What’s yours? Now, where does it fit in the Christian body? Paul gives a list, but there are other lists in other New Testament letters, and the wording varies, so there seems to be quite a variety. He wants to make the point that these gifts are not for “showing off”, as if believers were meant to be in competition for the “best” places. Quite the opposite, gifts are to be used for the benefit of the whole body – you use yours to help others, and need their gifts for the body to work as it should.

You can’t live as a Christian without being a Christian – because it only works if powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. Good intentions, discipline, duty – none are enough without the Spirit. That’s why the first steps involve a fundamental change of attitude, and being part of a co-operative, not competitive, group. And that is only the start!

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Even failure can be useful.

What use is failure? It seems that God can recycle most things. We know that we learn through our mistakes (if we deal with them properly). We know that our own need of forgiveness may help us learn to forgive others. And in Romans 11, we get a glimpse of God’s purposes as Israel seemed to have rejected its promised Messiah. (Our Sunday reading is Romans 11:1-2a & 29-32, but you may want to read more).

Paul has been struggling with this question in chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the letter. It causes him considerable and continuing pain, more so as his mission to non-Jews is seen by some as betrayal. Yet here he makes sense of his experience, of offering the gospel to Jews first in any place, but then to any who would listen if the Jewish community would not. He explains (in the body of the chapter, of which we read two short extracts from beginning and end) that the blindness of Israel has made an opportunity for the Gentiles.

However, it may be that some non-Jewish believers in Rome have seen that as a cause for boasting – not a good thing. Paul uses his example of the olive tree. If the cultivated olive tree is failing to produce, it may be pruned and a graft of wild olive introduced to re-invigorate it. (Apparently a known technique).

Of course, the “roots” of the tree are Jewish – the promises of God recorded in the Old Testament. If the “wild” olive (Gentiles) benefit, well and good, but they should be aware what they are benefitting from – and of the ease with which they could be removed!

Paul tells us that the success of the Gentile mission is part of God’s purpose, and will in God’s time provoke faith among Jewish people. We can wonder at this, and perhaps remember those who take faith in Jesus to share with Jewish people, greatly hindered by a history of injustice and prejudice. Perhaps we also need to give thanks for God’s mercy, which has included us!

Is there more? It may be fanciful, but perhaps we should look at the failing churches of the western world, and wonder if the livlier faith found in some parts of the developing world has something to teach us. Are we in danger of complacency? Are we more proud of our history than what we are doing now with our resources, education and freedoms? Do we need a pandemic to remind us that life is more than social media and materialism?

Paul grieved for his own people, and served God where he was sent. Perhaps in the west, Christians should have a greater grief for their own culture, while being ready to share – and receive – from others?

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DIY Life?

Most of us will have a go at fixing things, though some are better at Do It Yourself than others, and there is always that difficult question about when it is better to call in a professional. That might be a way of seeing Romans 10:5-15. There are those for whom life is definitely a DIY project. They have some instructions, gathered from somewhere, and they are going to get on with it (or perhaps will when they get around to it). Then there are others, who have called in the expert, and God is in control.

That, at least in my mind, is one way of describing the difference between the Jewish people Paul agonises about, because they refuse the offer of grace in Christ, and the “outsiders” who have happily accepted the gospel he preaches.

We might think of those who enjoy gardening. Some will try to force their plot to conform to a plan, while others will encourage and allow what seems to fit, assisting, but knowing that they do not control, or even fully understand how it works.

Or we might consider two people, living in neighbouring houses. One lives in his own house, and is proud of it. The other knows very well that he was not the architect, nor the builder, (nor even the person who paid the bills), but is happy to live there and enjoy the facilities, discovering new features as time goes on.

You will gather that, although Paul is concerned with the situation in his own time where the Christian message has proved much more acceptable to Gentiles than to Jewish people, the issue is wider than that. The gospel speaks of a belief, or faith, (and we might want to say “trust”) which allows God to work in us and our lives. Just as the Old Testament covenant (the Law) was freely offered to guide God’s people – but had been taken as a sign of privilege and superiority – so the gospel is freely offered to all. For Jewish people, it was hard to accept that non-Jewish “outsiders” were being offered salvation freely, on just the same terms as they were. The issue hasn’t gone away, because there are still some people who think they are privileged, or deserve something better than others for some reason. Sadly, there are even people in churches who think in this way! They imagine that their morality, or hard work, or something makes them more deserving – when God is wanting to be generous to all.

Some enjoy DIY, and some quickly call for a professional. It is true life has to be done in person, but we are offered expert help, and free! The offer has to be accepted, and acted on (not put off until . . ), but it is real. And for those who can see it, it lines up with what God was intending all along. He was always giving, to help people to freedom and full life.

One of the delights of a garden is being able to share it with others – swapping ideas, and sometimes produce and seeds as well. Romans 10:13 turns to the need for messengers. Even though the news is good, not everyone will receive it. But it still needs to be given, talked about, and shared in every way possible. Every Christian has to be an advertisement for their faith and their Lord.

Some will know that my wife and I support and sometimes speak for the organisation called SAT-7, which organises Christian TV produced by and for people in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a great organisation, bringing together many denominations and traditions to use satellite TV to share good news, helping people understand Christian faith, but also modern family life, and appropriate responses to many family and life situations. There are programmes for children, teens and families, in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi (Persian). If you are not familiar with it, do visit www.sat7uk.org