Fired up?

What motivates you? gets you out of bed on a cold morning? The fear that somebody will come and get you? Habit and the need to get to work and pay the bills? It works better if there is something positive to look forward to, something good which can be enjoyed and shared.

Peter is looking forward to Christ’s return, (we read 2 Peter 1:16-21 ) and arguing against those who doubt it. You may remember how he started with Jesus – found by his brother, called from his fishing. It started as some sort of interest, helped by a group who lived together and became friends. But that wasn’t enough.

The key was Jesus. Even then, it was not a striking personality, nor a wonderful teaching or programme. What he talks about is the greatness he saw, especially when Jesus was Transfigured. That was quite an experience – but Peter’s faith wasn’t built on an “experience”. It was a time when everything came together, and he “saw” it, and understood – and that would motivate him through dark and difficult times.

What did he see? A glimpse of reality. A reality in which God is involved with his creation, and so everything is seen in a new light. A glimpse of holiness, of Jesus talking with 2 great leaders for God about what was truly important, about something which would have significance for ever. A glimpse of heavenly beings, in communication which had understanding and purpose.

Peter sees, and his confidence grows in the one identified as God’s Son, and he moves on. He draws attention to the message of the prophets verse 19, and the need to be guided by the Holy Spirit verse 21.

We read this passage before Lent, to remind us that it is not just a time to give up some trivial indulgence, and enjoy being miserable. It is time to think about our motivation, what feeds it and what obstructs it. Some motivations in Christian life just don’t work – and we see people give up.

Against that we set, not some subjective experience, but the greatness and glory of God revealed in Jesus. We may come to understand at different times, but we also need to know about

  • the reality
  • the holiness
  • and the communication

so that we set out on our journey to heaven with determination, and energy, and skill.

It may be that you know how to sort out your motivation; or perhaps you just need to listen to people like Peter, writing to convince you.

What about Creation?

Creation is wonderful! If you doubt it, think how many different people would be fascinated, within their speciality:

  • Engineers of all sorts are fascinated by the order, and interlocking systems balancing
  • Anthropologists and Zoologists can spend lifetimes studying the diversity and intricacy of what they discover – knowing there is much more
  • Astronomers get excited by things I don’t understand at all!
  • Authors are amazed by the varieties of human experience, or travel possibilities.
  • Artists look at landscapes, from postcard sunsets to subtle delights

I try to take photographs, and have a continuing series of clouds. Sometimes with skyline, often without. There is colour, shape, contrast, mystery, power . . all sorts of things, often in great beauty.

Yes, creation is wonderful but – read Romans 8:18-25 as we did, and we need to look forward. We know there are various things wrong. Climate Change has been highlighted as a concern for us all. But there are other problems: trade imbalances impoverishing the weak; technological changes affecting cultures. . Paul is not very specific, but seems to say that creation groans, and that humans, including Christians, also experience less than the ideal. This isn’t it – we haven’t arrived.

These and other problems don’t mean creation is wholly spoiled, but neither is it as it should be. So creation groans – verse 22. One commentator says “Cosmic pessimism was rampant in the first century; most people believed that decay and Fate reigned supreme.” I’m not sure of the most popular outlook today, but Paul adds that even Christians who have been given the Holy Spirit share this groaning, looking for what they do not yet have or experience. What is that? Freedom from the present problems – so heaven, or perhaps the full experience of the Kingdom of God. It has started, but we still wait for its full realisation. We can’t make the Kingdom of God happen. It needs God, and his timing. So we wait, perhaps suffer, and hope.

But do we do that idly? No, at least I hope not.

  • We relish creation, enjoying it according to our gifts (taking pictures, easing relationships under strain, gardening) – and hope that helps others as well as us enjoy and glimpse the Creator.
  • We learn to give thanks, recognising the Creator, and our bounty.
  • We look forward. We talk about what we have now and what we are waiting for, keeping up our expectation with encouragement.
  • Where possible, we put things right. Fair Trade matters; it won’t solve all the problems of the world, but it will help, and fix some. Climate change matters, and yes, its a big issue – but find out what you can do, and do it.

Creation is wonderful; and we are waiting for our Creator God to make it as it is really supposed to be. In the meantime, we can still see some of his character in the creation, and we have things to hope for, and things to do.

What’s behind it?

Do you sometimes wonder why things succeed? Is it just clever presentation, a good advertising agency, or a bit of manipulation? Sometimes we look back at the fashions of a few years ago – the popular ideas and activities as well as clothes – and wonder why we ever thought them worth bothering with. Yet some things do last, and prove their worth.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (we read 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 this week) about what happened when he first came to them and established the group of Christian believers. He says that they weren’t persuaded by a clever speaker, nor by polished theory and philosophy. Yet the Church was established there, and fought through many difficulties, as it has done all over the world. Paul’s claim is that, far from depending on himself, he spoke of Jesus and his death. The force was God’s Spirit, which made, and maintained, the difference.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,  so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5

There is a power behind Christian living, but if it is real it is not dependent on a dominant personality, or a clever presentation. The power has to be the power of God to heal and transform broken lives, and to motivate loving service. In a similar way, the wisdom Paul speaks of is not about getting rich, making a reputation, or even getting your own way. It is in gaining some understanding of a God who loves his people, who chooses the way of the Cross, and works in lives that are often seen as unimportant.

But is it real? The Christian faith continues to grow and transform people, even when it costs them dearly. Despite many human failures and scandals, nothing has finished it. It has to be something more than clever words and flattery. It has to be about the way things were made, and really are.

Understood.

“You don’t understand what its like!” – perhaps we remember the cry as the typical complaint of the teenager. But it is not a feeling limited to the years of adjustment to adulthood.

Increasingly we hear people being pressured in their jobs, by managers themselves being pushed harder and harder for results. Too often the employee feels unheard and not understood as they are pushed.

More and more families are pressured by the varied wants and demands of different members. We are encouraged to be our own people and do our own thing – but no one explains how that will fit with the personalities and agendas of others with whom we share our lives.

There is a danger that church life can add to the problem: Live like this, support that, we must do more . . So Hebrews comes as a relief. (We read a short paragraph from the end of chapter 2 today – Hebrews 2:14-18)

Jesus shared our life. It was necessary for us to know he understands, even if he didn’t need that experience to empathise. A fully human – and not wealthy or favoured – life was lived before his death. And it was his death that set us free from the fear and power of death. Indeed, his death opens our way to new life.

If Jesus had not lived like us, there might always have been the suspicion that he didn’t – couldn’t – know what it feels like. We might have felt as if we were being shouted at by some drill sergeant, who had no intention of running the course, or facing the enemy. But v17 “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” – an intermediary, bringing us back to God.

We read this encouragement with the story of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) – a helpless baby brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law. We are reminded of how fully Jesus was immersed in the life of a faithful Jewish family, and in time would take a full part in it. Of course, Simeon and Anna recognise something wonderfully out of the ordinary in this child. He will bring change, and fulfillment of many hopes.

The “growing up” of God’s plans for his people was not without some painful adjustments, just like the “growing up” of children taking their place in the adult world. The Messiah recognised in his mother’s arms turned out to be the Messiah who did not meet popular expectations, at least not in the way some looked for. People would struggle to understand the way God chose to work – as they have in every age, and still do. But at least we cannot doubt that God in Christ did “know what its like!”, and had every sympathy for what Christians would face and struggle with.

It’s no joke!

What is both totally absurd, and also very common? Sadly it is not a joke, and the answer is Christian division and disunity. Paul faces it as he writes to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, following on from last week). He responds to reports he has received that the congregation is dividing into groups or cliques, following Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ.

We can only speculate: Paul had founded a church for Jews and Gentiles together. We might guess that the Cephas group (Cephas is the same person as Peter, the apostle) were concerned to keep the Jewish traditions. It may be that the Apollos people liked the smooth educated style and more polished rhetoric of Apollos, and the Christ clique longed for the good old days. . .

How it happened is not the point. Paul insists that it is quite wrong. The message he had preached was about Jesus. His intention was to share his faith – in Jesus. He had deliberately avoided setting up a personality cult, based on his gifts and appeal. He reinforces this with the point about Baptism. Baptism was into Christ, it mattered, but who performed the ceremony was not important.

Sadly, as I suggested, the failures we all share make it very easy for Christian unity to be damaged. We meet “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – but are too quick to add “as decent Anglicans”, or fans of this or that tradition, or denomination. Three things in particular are dangerous.

  • One is the tradition you like – Catholic ceremonial, Evangelical preaching, Charismatic enthusiasm, Anglican moderation . . We all have likes and dislikes, but they must not replace our loyalty to Christ – or they deny our faith!
  • Similarly, we will take to one leader more easily than another: their syle of speech, personality, or simply the fact that they were there for you at a difficult time. That’s very human, but must never endanger your 1st loyalty – to Christ, and other Christians.
  • And of course there is the question of buildings. We know in Britain we have too many – but the answers are not easy! What can be said is that when a church closes, and some choose not to worship anywhere else, the sceptics may rightly ask whether it was the worship of Christ that ended, or some other social gathering.

You might think that is the end of the question. Christian division is unfaithful, you either follow Jesus and are ready to join with any and all others who do so, or your faith is in question. But there are complications. One is the need to worship in different ways. Young and loud; older and more reflective . .

Another, that while Paul will not allow the church to become cliquey, he also needs to give a lead, and have his teaching authority recognised. Any Christian must have a loyalty to Christ, a commitment to follow as a disciple. But we are also called to fellowship – to be part of a group where we learn, and both give and receive support. That means being being loyal and supportive of a leader/s. (It may sometimes be right to leave and join another group, but if you don’t think grumbling and lack of support a sin – read Exodus about those who didn’t like Moses, what God thought, and what happened to them!)

So let’s remember the importance of being together as we follow the Way of Christ. Let’s practice loving the difficult, and quelling any gossip or grumbling with something positive. It’s not easy, but Christian living was never promised to be!

Most important

In our world, news travels fast. With the reporting of need, whether from famine, or displacement caused by war or disaster, come requests for aid – food, shelter, tools. It is right that we should respond, as good citizens, and even more as Christians who value people as made in God’s image and loved by Him. Sometimes we get tired – “compassion fatigue” sets in. But it is still right to act.

In recent years, our response to natural disaster and war has been supplemented by a concern for climate change. The Australian bushfires this year are the lastest in a series of events happening around the globe. Again, it is right that we should respond, as good citizens, and even more as Christians who value God’s creation, as well as those who depend on it. The EcoChurch project has helped inform some of us, and shown practical ways to respond.

Yet it is easy to lose perspective. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth (today we read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9), he begins with thanks – thanks for their faith, which they have been given as a gift by God’s grace. They are not a wealthy group – though they will later contribute to a collection for famine victims in Judea. They are not a perfect group – Paul will have to deal with some scandal later. But his first reaction is to give thanks for their faith, and the way it has enriched their lives – verse 5 “enriched in every way”. A “mixed bag” of people, they are verse 2 “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people”. The implication is that God, who has given them faith, will also supply what is needed to grow that faith. That has to be an encouragement to us, who show some similarities!

So I want to ask, “What is it that we want most for those in need, or for our friends and families, or indeed for ourselves?” Yes, we all need the necessities of life, and should give thanks for food, shelter and security. If these are lacking and we can supply them for others, so we should. Yes, we need a world fit for our grandchildren to live in, not blighted by our selfishness and failure to act now that we know what is going wrong with our climate. Again, we need to take action, and to join others who will do something – making new friends in the process.

But the perspective we must not lose, is the awareness that the greatest of all blessings is the grace God gives to those who respond to the call of faith. The many blessings of the Christian life are not earned benefits, but gifts to those who will receive them.

We cannot press this on anyone. Jesus himself teaches us by his example that there is to be no force, no nagging, no emotional blackmail. But let us be clear, and keep in mind, that while we have a responsibility to the needy, and to the future of the world, the one thing always to be hoped and longed for, and most greatly prized, is faith. If we can share ours, and help someone to find their own way to God, that is worth more than anything.

Telling the story

How would you tell the story of Jesus? Or, for somebody who knew parts of it, but not the significance, how would you order it? These are important questions if faith is to reach two or even three lost generations in the West. Acts 10 tells the story of Peter’s visit to the non-Jewish Cornelius, and the section we read today (Acts 10:34-43) covers what he said to the gathered household.

First, he does not confuse the issue with his own feelings. The event is of enormous importance to Peter, as he goes takes the message of Jesus outside the Jewish world for the first time. (Read Acts 10:9-17 to understand something of the struggle it involved). Yet his two verses of explanation (vv33,34) are directed to explain his presence to his audience, not to chart his own journey and new insight!

Secondly, Peter makes clear that God’s message is about Jesus, and delivered through the events of Jesus’ life. There is reference to the events at his Baptism (also read today), but verses 39-41 go straight to the death and resurrection. This is central to Christian faith, and Peter wastes no time in making that clear.

His stress on the importance of Jesus, and the corresponding lack of self-importance, or demands for institutional affiliation, are also a great help in the search for unity among Christians. Faith is shared by those who follow Jesus as Lord. They have a variety of leaders, organisations, and traditions – some of lasting value, but none of these are definitive. When we tell the story of Jesus, it is not to increase attendance at our preferred place or worship, or to add donors to its finances, but to share the faith which brings life and hope. New believers may “join” other groups – but we must rejoice if they are joined to the faithful!

If Peter spoke along these lines – it seems likely this is a summary, and he used more words than are written here – we should notice how effective this was. Verses 44-48 show the power of God breaking out, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is not under control. (This is one time when the Spirit came before Baptism with water). It doesn’t need a great speaker to manipulate an audience; a humble person who will tell the story of Jesus as something of importance can release the power of God to help and heal.

If you wonder how to tell the story of Jesus, make sure it is just that – the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. For those who come to believe, expect God’s power to show in changing lives – but lives that change in God’s agenda, not yours or that of your congregation!

Back to (Super-) Normal.

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our reading (we read Ephesians 1:3-14 this Sunday) will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians 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 and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his 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? Because it doesn’t fit with a sentimentalised 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 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 fairy tale, 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 have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 1:11,12

A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Why Jesus?

You can tell a great deal about a Church from its attitude to Jesus. Is he talked about a lot, or only a little? Is he seen as a leader, or more remotely as some sort of “patron”? Are the gospels read often, or less than other writings?

Jesus remains at the centre of Christian faith. The name comes from a “Christ men” nickname, noted in the New Testament (Acts 11:26), and apt. One of the important reasons why is noted by the writer of the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 2:10-18 today). Jesus, who by nature, and from before the start of time, shares the status of God with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to come to earth. He volunteers to be born, vulnerable and poor, as a truly human baby – Mary’s child.

So begins a human life, which will share all the normal experiences, and several others. He will play, learn, celebrate – and suffer. He does not deserve that suffering, but it makes him a most appropriate Saviour, as he is fully identified with those he brings from darkness and despair to the glory of heaven and hope.

The writer of this letter to Hebrews will compare Jesus with the Jewish High Priest. The High Priest was well aware of the failings of the people, as he shared their life (and indeed their sins). But he was appointed to make sacrifice for them to God. It was something well understood by the Jewish Christians who first received this letter.

In the twenty first century, we may find it more helpful to think (with some early Christians) of Jesus making a bridge between earth and heaven. Both ends of a bridge have to be secure, and in the right place! The Son of God belonged in heaven. He had the right. But in being born human, and sharing the ups and downs of human life before offering himself as a sacrifice for sin, he establishes the other end of the bridge. So, as Hebrews says:

“he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Hebrews 2:17-18

That he should choose to live a human life, suffer, and die, remains for many a puzzle. But it is God’s wisdom, establishing the offer of salvation, without any coercion. The bridge between earth and heaven is open, both ends secure and well placed. Those who doubt, and want to paddle themselves across the flood, are foolish indeed.

Work it out

Will your Christmas include playing games like “Cleudo”, or perhaps a retreat to enjoy a “whodunit” book, or maybe just the need to follow clues to find that missing item that is really essential?. In Romans 1:1-7, Paul is beginning his careful letter to Christians in Rome. Careful, because he hadn’t founded that Church. Though some there knew him, he also knew they had received mixed reports of him and his work.

He immediately makes clear his concern for the Good News, which is “concerning his Son ” 1:3 – and that is useful today, as so much of the Christmas fuss about us centres on anything but Jesus. Santa, presents, snow, choirboys and old churches, stagecoaches, wild animals, bells, – almost anything but Jesus.

But how were they supposed to know this? What made Jesus so different? How could they recognise Him, or justify their belief to others? This is where the clues come in and Paul lists 3:

  • v2 “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,Jesus was the one the prophets pointed to, and their words could be checked against his birth, life and works. A good clue!
  • v3 ” who was descended from David according to the fleshThere were promises relating to a king in David’s family; both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus ancestors through David. Like the prophecies, this is another clue pointing to the importance of Jesus
  • v4 “and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the deadThe Resurrection is so clear a clue. It points not only to the importance of Jesus, but to his status as Son of God

What Paul said by way of introducing his gospel and himself to the Romans is still true, and still important. Why should we think our faith or way of life true? in what way can we say that it is better than any other? or anything more than a matter of opinion or personal choice?

Because it is about Jesus, and our conclusions about him rest on this evidence. He was the one who fulfilled the hopes of the prophets; he was the descendant of David who became the Great King; and he was the one who rose from the dead. You know the methods, you have the evidence -follow the clues to their conclusion, and encourage others to do the same!

The Result has been a dramatic change in Paul. He has changed from a proud and privileged Pharisee to “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God”. His preaching has by this time continued for many years, and brought many to the faith, and the experience he prays for them in verse 7 “grace and peace”

As we dash on towards Christmas, take a moment to remember what its all about. Without Jesus, it is a very hollow celebration of the commercial power of advertising, of benevolence unsupported by reason, and hopefulness doomed to reality. There is Good News, but it cannot be separated from God’s Son,

  • recognised as the one the prophets spoke about,
  • the descendant of David
  • who rose from the dead to reign for ever

If he gives us grace and peace, it will be a present of real and increasing value..