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..

Patience

There are some things you can’t buy – and patience is one. James in his letter commends it to Christians (James 5:7-10), but you might wonder why we read that now. While Advent is about getting ready, it reminds us of what we have not yet got – and thus the need for patience. It fits very well with the hopeful words of Isaiah 35, the good times had not yet arrived. Life for that community, as well as the one James addresses, may have been hard, so patience is needed.

Patience is a gift (it is included in the fruit of Spirit: Galatians 5:22), the opposite of anger or short-temperedness. But, apart from saying we need it and its nice if you’ve got it, what can we do about it? James talks about farmers, and perhaps we should take the hint to look forward. His reason is that Jesus return will sort everything (and everybody) out. We talk about the Kingdom, begun among us but not yet complete.

Put it another way: it is tempting to want the last word, but less so when we realise God will have it – on everything. Or perhaps we need to go back to parables like the Wheat and the Weeds / Tares (Matthew 13:24-30), to realise the danger of wanting everything sorted out too soon, before the time is right. So we commend patience, reinforced with the reminder that it is not for us to get everything in order, but for God to do so at the right time.

But how does that fit with the urgency of John the Baptist? Are we urging patience while his call is to decisive action? Certainly John had an urgency as he told people to engage with God – but James is talking to Christians who have done that, and need to persist. We can see in John the Baptist (and especially in prison) some of the pain behind his question – “Are you the one?”. He, like many prophets before him, would die before his words were proved. But he was right – history, and the perspective of heaven, would justify what he had said.

So it is important for the Christian community to whom James writes that they should be patient. He does not mean their faith is any less vital, or that taking opportunities to share it is anything but urgent and important, but behind that is the awareness that God will sort things out when he comes, and that can be left to him. It is important for us, too. Our situation and difficulties are not the same – though grumbling seems to survive across the centuries. We are also trying to be part of our wider community, but with a different lifestyle, and set of values. Our Christian way may not be used, accepted or understood by the majority, and we need patience to follow it steadily and successfully.

Now?

The shops are full, the advertisements loud and demanding: Have it! Have it all! Now. The glitz has an appeal, but on reflection, it is profoundly depressing. Is this all there is? Nothing beyond what you can buy and break? For Christians, the run up to Christmas needs a different view. Not “Christmas already”, but another anticipation.

Paul explains in Romans 15:4-13. HOPE. Not a vague and wistful imagining, but a looking forward to what is promised. It is the by steadfastness, and the encouragement of the scriptures, that we find that essential ingredient of purposeful life, so often missing in our culture. This hope comes from God, who intends us ” to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” – which in itself is a blessing.

Hope, unlike so many consumer trophies, is something we can share, and share gladly. The story you know from Carol Services details creation, and human rebellion. But a loving God works patiently sending patriarchs, and prophets, looking to Christ, and then to his second coming. God has worked through the ages – he was the one explaining, preparing, looking forward in hope.

That may not be new, but remember it doesn’t stop! Scripture tells of the early Christians, looking forward in hope. They had not yet received all that had been promised. Which leaves us standing out; “Have it all, now?” No. THEN, yes. We are, still, people who look forward; who know that the promises are better than this, while enjoying what is good now, we wait expectantly for what will come.

Expectancy is important. In faith, in life, and in prayer. But especially in worship. If you expect very little – that is probably what you will get. If you are open to be reminded of God’s promises, to hear his plans and directions, to face your real needs – your hope of something good is likely to be well met.

What time is it?

You will realise there are a number of ways of answering: chronological time – is more or less exact (though you could refer to human history, geological or cosmological time scales). But you could talk about economic time. We live in a post-industrial society, where the heavy industry that brought wealth to some has moved away. We live in a time of some economic pressure, after the banking crisis (and arguably a crisis of confidence in other professions). For several years, real incomes have remained static or fallen. The prospects for the unskilled or unfit are bleak, and for others, challenging.

What time is it? Again, we could speak of time of life. For some of us the challenges of finding a career, a spouse, a place in society, are past. That’s not to say we do not still have decisions and changes to face and adapt to. Our role in family and friendship group will change, perhaps with the arrival of another generation, perhaps with being unable to do some of the things which used to define our role any more. Perhaps we are more likely now to face the challenges of illness, of bereavement, of restricted mobility and activity. – but how will we face up to them? Have we built up the resources?

What time is it? Any of these answers might be correct – chronological, economic, time of life, but I would like to direct you to today’s readings (reading Romans 13:11-14). They tell us firmly that it is time to wake up, to take stock and live with careful intention. Jesus says (in gospel passages like Matthew 24:36-44), “Since you don’t know when opportunities will end, when the Lord returns, or death strikes suddenly, or even when illness restricts your capabilities, then wake up, and life carefully NOW” Avoid distraction, forget excuses.

For some of those who heard him, the end came disastrously in the Jewish War and the destruction of Jerusalem. But the instruction is not only for those in Palestine, or that first generation. Paul writes to Christians in Rome :

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light;

Romans 13:11-12

What time is it? Whatever your economic situation or stage of life, it is time to wake up. Your life carries responsibility, to live as an obedient follower and disciple of Jesus. Put down distractions, excuses, alternative views, and be ready to give an account. If the thought of that is troubling, then repent and accept forgiveness – and put things right while there is time. The warning of Advent is not about making you frightened, but is an act of love to save you from great loss.

What time is it? Time to wake up and live for Christ.

Putting him in his place

Does toleration demand religious pluralism? Our society is full of different belief systems – and increasingly so as they mix and mingle. The situation was much the same in Colossae, a small town in Asia Minor / Turkey. There was a church founded by Epaphras, one of Paul’s converts. The town was founded on a trade in purple dyed wool (purple from cyclamen). But the Church was troubled by false teaching, a mixed and complicated drawing from many sources – Christian, Jewish, Greek mystery cults . . .In fact, many similarities with twenty first century society.

Paul writes to the Church, and quickly speaks of Jesus. We face a temptation to avoid him, to talk instead about our tradition, how we like to do things. Shouldn’t we just take Jesus as one teacher among many ? – what about Muslim view of Jesus, about the Mormons Joseph Smith, and the Bahai’s Bahaullah. You can get lost here – but not with Paul.

Paul is going to spell out the importance of Jesus (we are reading from Colossians 1:11-20) :

[God] “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “

Colossians 1:13

This is the story of conversion– an individual coming to faith, not just to personal satisfaction and clarity, but life!

Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[d] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[e] him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place. Jesus first, superior to all he created (including many of these strange spiritual things we don’t know much about. Christianity is not committed to saying there are no other spiritual powers or forces – but asserts the greatest of all). You can’t say that, and then follow it with “Jesus is one among many teachers and holy men” or “Jesus is another prophet”. It doesn’t make sense – you must choose one or other. Jesus is the head of his body, the church; he is the source of the body’s life. He is the first-born Son, who was raised from death, in order that he alone might have the first place in all things.

“For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God.

Colossians 1:19,20

It was through the Son, then, that God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. Jesus is not just part or the church, or founder of the church – he is head, and life-source, and living ruler. Jesus is the one who brings us back to God – Christ is King because of the Cross, and that by the plan and decision of God. Paul will not allow Jesus’ role to be diminished, his place as head and ruler of the Church to be challenged.

Here we are in the twenty first century. Yes, we have many faiths, traditions and practices, and our Christian faith leads us to respect the freedom of people to believe, and even get faith wrong. But, is there a greater prophet? Someone more modern who will put Jesus in his lower place? Would you seriously think of replacing the creator of the universe, who played the key and costly role in setting us free? That would indeed be madness.