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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