Truth

The Bible is old. It comes from a very different time and culture, and needs translating from dead languages. Why bother? You will not expect me either to apologise for using the Bible, or for finding it important. But “Why bother?” is a significant question, and I’ll take just one of many possible answers.

Paul tells Timothy (I’m reading 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5) it is useful for teaching the truth. Truth – an important thing. Without it, we get lost, in “fake news”, opinion, misinformation, propaganda, “spin”. The first thing to do before making any plans is to check the facts. It doesn’t matter if you are planning a bus trip to town or a lifetime career. You need to know the possibilities – bus times, educational requirements . . The more you think about it, the more important truth becomes:

  • Truth is the way things are and while you can live in a dream or a fantasy, it doesn’t work for long, and you can come down with a bump.
  • Truth is reality and we all learn about the realities – financial realities, medical realities, educational realities . .
  • Truth is a foundation. Actually, the only foundation with any reliability. You can build on truth – a career, a relationship, a plan of where to go from here . .

Truth is less common than it used to be. There used to be a standard, which required truth, for example in courts, and in public life. Now, that is more “negotiable”. It should make Christians more visible. The Bible tells us about God, and it may be memories of bad school lessons that make us forget one of the best things about God is Truth. God doesn’t do lies, not even half lies; he’s as straight as you can get. He so much “tells it as it is”, that he is not only true, but Truth – he defines the word. (Remember Jesus, “I am Way, Truth and Life” John 14:6 ?). Of course, this isn’t “true” just because somebody says so. You need to decide this for yourself, in the most careful and reliable way you can – but don’t delay!

And when you find out for yourself, lets celebrate the God of the Bible, with a determination to get to know him better, understanding that truth is a firm basis for:

  • a life
  • a career
  • a relationship
  • and anything else you had in mind (anything good, that is!)

To simplify . .

How complicated does it have to be? In a world where so much is complicated – technology, getting help, simply handling the everyday things we use – do the big questions have to be endlessly complicated as well? What about the decisions? Perhaps not. Paul writes (in today’s reading, 2 Timothy 2:8-15)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

a simple summary – and a good one. Paul is chained as a prisoner, but seems to think imprisonment worthwhile, in the hope that his efforts and endurance will help others to find salvation – “safety” – in the same way, through Jesus. His concern with outsiders comes from Jesus, and is a reminder for us. He doesn’t tell us where “the saying” comes from – a hymn, a bit of worship text, a poem?, but is underlines his point:
Jesus is our focus, a leader reliable enough to follow through death to life beyond. (You have to be very sure of a leader to go on that campaign with him!) He reminds us of the importance of enduring, of keeping going – for it is those who continue their loyalty to him who will gain the benefit.

But Jesus is not like us in being possibly unfaithful. He keeps faith, whatever we do, and that is part of the difference. Jesus is remembered as the one who was raised from the dead – the great evidence of God’s approval of the man and his message. His pioneering of that journey is vital.
Jesus is also a descendant of David – not just the Messiah (“Great David’s greater Son”, to quote a hymn of ours), but one who, coming in that tradition, fulfills and advances it.

So is it all that simple? “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel” 2 Tim 2:8. Yes, and no. Yes, that is a good summary, and it does tell us where we should be focussing and who we should be following. No, because it is a summary, and to understand the summary you need to read the whole argument.

Paul goes on to that in verse 14 “avoid wrangling over words”. There are 2 sorts of discussion:

  • one is a point scoring contest, an attempt to win. It can go on for a long time as people twist words, facts, anything
  • another involves careful listening, building with others a deeper and better picture of an important reality.

Paul knows only too well how pointless the first is. Words are terribly inexact things, but they are the best means of communication we usually have. There is a danger in using them – of confusion, of point-scoring competition, of giving the wrong picture, an inaccurate picture, a picture that looks OK to me but has a totally different meaning for the other person.

You see the dilemma, and its solution. We try to work out our faith, to understand at the deepest level we are capable of. But when we are in danger of getting too clever, or too totally confused/bemused

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

That instruction can be given without qualification

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

Recipe for action

Imagine what it would be like if every Christian was confident in their faith. I mean confident, not bumptious or aggressive – indeed confidence would let them listen to other views and other ways calmly. What sort of a church would result from people who took seriously 2 Timothy 1:1-14, starting with verse 7? Let’s think about it.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young and possibly rather diffident leader in the church. He gives thanks for his faith, and v 6,7

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

God’s Spirit fills us with power. Not like Superman – or the Amazing Hulk. Not power for display, but to get things done. Paul talks about witnessing, about not being ashamed of Jesus. That’s an important part of Christian confidence. “I may not have got all the answers, and I’m not holding myself up as perfect, but I can recommend a Saviour.” It takes power to make that recommendation graciously, whether it means speaking up in an awkward silence, or being consistent about living differently to others.

But it’s not just power, love is needed. What has love to do with confidence?

God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

God’s love is what has saved us. A love for the unlovely. A reason to know that we are valued, that we have a place – and not because we pretend to be something we are not, but because God makes us something we are not. If the Spirit fills us with love, the competition to be more important, more successful, loses its point. We can love and accept others because we are loved and accepted.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. s not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.”

Self control? Paul was no control freak. He travelled the Mediterranean, and there were no timetables (and no travel insurance). Paul’s life was flexible, but there was a discipline there to get things done. He said that it was not what he achieved, but what God did in and through him, and together they worked well.

Self-control is no easier to find than power or love, but we are told that these are things the Holy Spirit gives and develops as we live as Christians. It’s not a passing or accidental reference in verse 7, because verse 14 underlines it:

14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

That needs no explanation. We need confident Christians, filled by the Holy Spirit with power, love and self-control. Don’t just think about it; do it!

Angels

September 29th is the feast of Michael and all Angels – a day to look into things beyond our experience and often understanding. That in itself is no bad thing! The idea that we know it all, or even all that matters (to us), is dangerous as well as arrogant.

The Bible does not tell us a great deal about angels. Michael appears in Daniel, Jude and Revelation as warrior. Gabriel, perhaps better known from the Christmas story, is also in Daniel. (The Apocrypha adds Raphael, with a major part in the book of Tobit, and Uriel in 2 Esdras). There are other un-named angels in the gospel story, visiting the shepherds near Bethlehem, and with Jesus in the wilderness and later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus mentions them many times – but never to say much directly about them. He assumes their presence in Heaven.

Perhaps that is what we need to know. Angels are largely beyond our experience and understanding. They remind us that there is a great deal we do not even begin to understand. But God is in charge, God the One, who is also Father, Son and Spirit.

That brings us to the letter to Hebrews, and the reading for Michael and all Angels – Hebrews 1:5-14. Hebrews is written to a community tempted to leave their new Christian faith and default to their Jewish roots. The comment on angels in chapter 1 speaks of them as “ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation”. It insists, with Old Testament quotations, that even these glorious creatures are far inferior to Jesus, who alone holds the greatest power.

Does that leave us humbled, by what we do not know? Does it perhaps remind us of the greatness of God’s Son, who exceeds in importance spiritual powers not subject to our limitations? Are we encouraged by the thought of forces beyond our vision fighting evil ? Or perhaps we simply wonder if this might be the beginning of an answer to the question, “What if we are not the only form of intelligence in the Universe?”. We can be thankful for Michael and all Angels, while we still admit the very limited understanding we have of angels and their doings.

Meta What?

What do you know about Post-Modernism? If your answer is nothing, or even not much, you are wrong. You may not know the name, but you know the attitudes, and their effects. Post-Modernism is the view that says everyone can have their own life, even their own truth. It is the force behind the demand for choice, and the philosophy behind the assertion that everything is relative. It claims that – in the jargon – there is no Meta-narrative. That is, there is no overall meaning; it is no use asking why things are as they are or why the happen as they do – they just are, and you make your own meaning.

This is presented as something new, but many parts of it have been around many times before. Remember Paul, visiting Athens in the first century, and finding all sorts of temples and altars (“take your pick”); or remember Jonah, when on the ship in the storm, and the captain wakes him up (Jonah 1:6) to pray to his god, in case that works better than any of the other “gods” the crew and other passengers pray to for relief from the dangerous storm.

You may realise that I am talking about 1Timothy 2. (1 Timothy 2:1-7 is the reading for Proper 20c, or this year the 14th Sunday after Trinity) Christians have a distinctive attitude. We respect other people and beliefs – not because all beliefs are equal, nor out of fear or inability to do anything about it. We respect all people because God made them, loves them, and wants them to be saved. We respect their beliefs, because God does not force anyone in this life, so we also must allow them freedom within the limits of harm to others.

Now look at 1 Timothy 2. Prayer is to be offered for everyone! Can’t we just be concerned with ourselves, or those like us? No. We serve a God who cares for all, and our care must reflect his. We pray for those in authority, depending on them, but more. Verse 5:

“there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

What this is saying, as a summary of the Christian gospel, is that there is a Meta-narrative – one overall purpose. God, by definition, is one. He is the supreme being. Yes, our world has lost sight of him, and given up trying to make sense of everything. In some ways Christians haven’t helped – they have sometimes contributed to oppression, sometimes just let it happen. Some of their explanations have not honoured God, but made him anything but loving and just. We live with the results, in a curious mixture.

Our faith says, v5: “there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

Our world says there is no right way, do your own thing. I suggest we do as we are told (but as we are told by a God who is just, and loving, and understands what we never will on earth). What are we to do? Live as God asks, praying for all around us, making clear that our choice is for Jesus, and there is both the possibility and welcome for others to do so too.

Worst of Sinners -?

We don’t like the word “sinner”, and we certainly tend to think that if we have a few stains on our conscience, there are plenty others much worse. But Paul has a surprise for us

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost. ( v15 in the reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17 )

WHAT? Of course, Saul had led the persecution of Christians, rooting them out and putting them in prison. But he doesn’t say “I was”, he says “I am”. Perhaps we have to think again about our status, and doubt that great sinners are so different from us!

Who has never ever said “I hate you!”; never driven too fast; never lied, been glad at someone else’s failure, caused trouble between friends, … we don’t like recognising evil in us; but that doesn’t take it away

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost.

But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

Don’t imagine that you escape the label of “sinner”,
but don’t despair either. God is concerned about sinners, given the chance, he goes looking for them, brings them home, sorts them out –
and does it all very gently and patiently.

That’s why he has given us examples of those who found his love;
that’s why we are told about how concerned he is
not with the good, but with the outsider

You may know people in pain or difficulty, perhaps pray for them. Don’t forget those who may have caused the pain or difficulty. God cares – for all his children. Even the worst! There’s hope for everybody, if they want to take it.

And that’s why Paul pauses for a short hooray. Well, to be exact

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God is good, with a goodness not overcome by terrorism, or any other form of sin, including yours and mine.
we celebrate that goodness (not our own)
and have the responsibility to take advantage, and to announce:
“ The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Freedom, for beginners

What can a story from a time when slavery was legal teach us about freedom? Well, perhaps we should read the letter to Philemon!

A slave escaped from his owner, possibly stealing in the process, and headed for the bright lights, and anonymity, of the big city. There, somehow, he met a Christian – Paul. And during, and despite, Paul’s imprisonment, the slave became a Christian, and one Paul valued for his help. There’s a pun (you’d expect me to pick it up!). The slave’s name was Onesimus – ”useful”.

That’s wonderful! We can always celebrate when someone finds faith and new life. But Paul can’t and won’t keep someone else’s slave, even if he belongs to an old friend. So Onesimus must go back, knowing that his master could have him executed for escaping, wondering if he will pause long enough to read this letter before losing his temper.

Paul’s letter really works hard, explaining how the useless runaway has become very useful; offering to repay anything that was taken (but hinting heavily that Philemon really owes Paul everything); making it very clear that he would like Onesimus sent back to help Paul in his work, but saying that he can’t tell Philemon what to do (though his voluntary action would be a credit to him …).

No doubt the first readers knew what happened next – and we don’t. As time went on, the letter might have been lost as irrelevant, dealing only with people long dead. I wonder if it was kept and valued for what is said of Christian freedom? It would be many years before Christians would lead the fight against legalised slavery – a proper and important fight, but not the most important.

Paul is telling us that Onesimus found his freedom with his faith. He would remind us elsewhere that life could be lived (for everybody) as slaves of sin or slaves of righteousness – but that it had to be one or the other, there was no “independence”. We need to hear that. We’ve gone to the opposite extreme, thinking we owe nothing to anybody – which is not true!

But also many Christians today will say “If things were different, I could do more about my faith” –

  • if I was free
  • if I didn’t have such a demanding job
  • if my family responsibilities were less
  • if I had better health, was younger, more talented …

We need to understand that faith makes us free to do what is right: to be a Christian at work, or at home,
or, as a Christian, to change our priorities, lifestyle, and use of time.

Yes, Paul will advise slaves who have the chance, to obtain their freedom, but as something less important than their eternal freedom from the power of evil. Onesimus, travelling back to his master, is already free – so much so that we are not told if he was ever formally relieved of his slave status.

Developing Sameness

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” Hebrews 13:8 (and part of today’s reading, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15, 16). Often seen – on posters, outside churches. But what does it mean? Can we just “not bother” with all the changes in the world around us, and toss them aside as irrelevant? Or will that leave us as sad momentos of a bygone age. My impression of buildings displaying this text is not always of sympathetic welcome – in fact, sometimes, rather the opposite. Defiant archaism, proclaiming the music, and the social patterns, of a generation or two ago.

It might help us understand to look at the context, and the experience of the people to whom this letter was written. We don’t know who wrote this letter, but we do know a good deal about the people who received it. The knew their old Jewish faith well, but had become Christians. Tempted to go back to their old ways, they are encouraged to continue in the new covenant of Jesus. The argument is well supported with quotes from the Old Testament, and the description of Jesus as the proper High Priest, who does what the Jewish temple High Priest could never do, and makes a once-for-all sacrifice for sin. So there’s continuity, but a real (& necessary) step forward.

That’s probably applies to us, too. Continuity, but a step forward. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” What do we mean?

  • Jesus remains the same: with a welcome for sinners, rich and poor; a sympathy for all sorts of people in trouble; his welcome is not exhausted, his promises not finished, his love not out of date.
  • Jesus is the Son of God who was present before Creation, became a man as the son of Mary and the Holy Spirit, rose from death, and will return at the end of time as Judge

So there are some very important things which are the same:

  • Jesus himself, and the God he reveals
  • the qualities of God which he looks to see reflected in us: qualities like honesty, love, integrity, justice
  • and on the other hand the things which take us away from God: selfishness, manipulation of other people, pride, obsession with comfort & status, greed . . .

The Church has a continuity. We, too, read and learn from the Bible, and the stories passed on from each generation. We learn how to live as Christians, and model Christian living for the next generation.

But some things change – our society, our technology, our culture. We can rejoice in the stability of God, but must not be lazy and avoid engagement with the real world. We can make use of the Christian heritage, but faithfulness now demands we sing a new song to the Lord – one that relates to the needs and issues of today – and probably to a new tune, as well.

If it was good enough for my parents and their parents – it probably needs rethinking to be useful today. If the Nicene Creed was produced by the best Christian minds of the fourth and fifth centuries, it is worth taking very seriously – but it may not communicate to the twenty first century, or answer the questions of today.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.” It’s good news, serious and true. But the fact that God has continuity, doesn’t get tired and give up does not mean that we needn’t bother with keeping the presentation of the gospel up-to-date. The greatest effort in research and development worldwide is applied to Temptation. Our job is to show that God is still at least one step ahead with the answers, and they still work better and cost less.

Aslan

When CS Lewis wrote “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the lion was a key figure. Friendly, so that the children trusted him, he was never tame, still less a stuffed toy or little brother. The Lion was powerful, different, and while not frightening, at least awesome.

As we read Hebrews 12:18-29, we find first an account of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. It was a fearful experience, even for Moses, and more so for the people. Not only were they barred from the quaking, smoking mountain, they even had to keep livestock away. The God who was giving the commandments was not one to be treated lightly.

And we know better? I think not. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that the Christian experience is different. Jesus brings us a new Covenant, and teaches us more fully about God. But there is no suggestion that God may be treated lightly. Quite the opposite. As verse 25 points out, it is even more necessary to take to heart what is given us from heaven. We can rightly be thankful that the kingdom given to us is secure, but careful that the God we deal with is “a consuming fire” – never to be played with, always respected.

CS Lewis was surely right in the characterisation of Aslan. A lion, a wonderful companion and good friend, but a terror to the enemies of love and justice.

Faith

I wonder what “Faith” means to you? Faith is sometimes thought of as religious opinion; I’m sure you would go beyond that. We might talk vaguely of having faith in a government, school or doctor – that’s better ( it adds confidence to opinion) but does not have the idea of the trust which makes faith the basis of action.; that’s vital, as the stories we read today in Hebrews 11 and 12 show (the reading is Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2).

Faith is about what you do: it made the Israelites able to cross the Red Sea. They were pretty frightened, and it needed God’s action and Moses steadiness – but it was faith that made them listen to the instructions and then do them. They crossed the sea, and escaped the Egyptians, but they had to wait by the shore and then walk. That illustrates a point. Faith is not so much about being emotionally worked up and certain and not able to think of other possibilities. It is probably less important to have “great faith” than to be sure that the faith you have is in a great God, and is put into practice. So Abraham had to leave, travel, sacrifice Isaac. He didn’t earn favour, but learnt to look forward.

Faith is not always about doing the obvious. Moses had plenty of critics (and some mutinies). Joshua must have faced questions as he led the people in silence round the walls of Jericho. He may have shared those questions, but he had the faith to do as he was told, with dramatic results. Be careful! Faith is not following every daft idea that comes into your head. If you feel called to do something odd, check carefully and involve other people. Often the great temptation is to think we know best! Later, there are sad stories of those who thought they could improve on God’s instructions – Saul is an example, saving the “banned” cattle.

Faith is not irrational, but it is a decision, taken on the basis of what we know of God, to do what he commands, even when we don’t understand why or how it will work out. Moses had no rational chance against Pharaoh and his army; and yet, with some human co-operation and in spite of human opposition from others, his purposes succeed and the slaves go free. Human responsibility remains.

Faith can lead to uncomfortable experiences. Gideon and Barak both won important battles, but they were very uncertain, and needed a lot of persuading to take the lead. We are told that some won great victories, but others were lead by faith to suffering and death. And note that many were not “natural heroes”, faith changed them. Some we can identify. Jeremiah was mocked and imprisoned, Isaiah by tradition sawn in two, Zechariah stoned, and a number during Maccabean persecution (c66BC) tortured -2Mac6,7.

But that is not really the point. Why would we trust a God, if he might lead us into situations like that? Because its worth it. Even that sort of trouble is worthwhile if we then end up on God’s side. And we have an advantage that none of those examples did – we live after Jesus. We know what he endured, and where it lead him. We have even more reason to accept that a cross may be the way to heaven.

So faith is a belief, and a confidence, but always needing to be put into practice. These people, examples of faith, often knew less than we do of God’s plans, but they acted on what they knew; sometimes it lead them to strange and unlikely actions, but this was no madness – they were proved right by the results. Sometimes faith led them into suffering and difficulty, but again, it was not without reason in the purposes of God.

Which is all very interesting, and historical, until we realise that the time for faith is now. Don’t wait until you can see everything – you never will (on earth). If times are easy, faith will keep us from laziness. If times are hard, faith will keep us going. If times are confused, faith will steer us in the right direction. Faith, in a great God, is something to act on.