Monthly Archives: March 2020

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Threat – and opportunity

The world seems very different from just a couple of weeks ago. The threat of a virus – covid-19 – has changed our lives, causing strain and fear. Can Paul’s words from his letter to Ephesus offer any help? (We read Ephesians 5:8-14)

Christians are just like everyone else in having to respond to the situation, take instructions, and know that many things are changing, and some will never be the same. Paul’s challenge would seem to be that we do this with love, deliberately imitating God.

Yes there is evil in some of what is happening. Fear, insecurity, we could make quite a long list. These things can divide people and strain relationships. Can there be anything good in all this?

“Live as children of light” we are told. No secrets, no selfish advantage, but an open attempt to live generously and well. What does that mean, when we cannot go and meet people, join for worship, offer help? Perhaps it is a helpful challenge. It makes us think again about how we live our faith.

We cannot gather to worship, but we can join in broadcast services, or listen to our leaders and teachers via the internet. We cannot go and see people, but we can be in touch by phone, e-mail, messaging. We have more time spare that we are used to – and can use it well, or badly.

What it will mean to live in the light as Christian disciples? That will vary in detail from person to person. But for all it will be a life sharing with others, probably in new ways, which need exploring. We may self-isolate to avoid the bug, and the problem of others catching it from us, or perhaps having to care for us – but that is physical, not emotional. Don’t lower the portcullis and prepare to resist any who come near!

When we get back to something more like normal, what will the churches have learnt? Will they try for “business as usual”, or will they be glad of having tried new ways of supporting one another, new friends made, new skills learnt? It’s not that the faith has changed, but the times mean that the practice of faith has to adapt. Is the understanding we have gained so far equal to changing, and meeting a new world with the light of Christ?

“No longer for ourselves alone”

Paul wrote a letter to a church he had never visited – and, usefully for us, it sets out the message he preached. That message centres on Jesus, and on the good news that God has acted to rescue humans unable to save themselves. Let me take you through a little of what he says before today’s epistle. Paul claims that at least some of God’s character is clear in creation – but that there has been a general rebellion against God and living his way, and as a result there is guilt. The trouble is, it is not just “them”, it affects “us” too. Those who knew the Old Testament Law – 10 commandments and more – simply knew their failure in more detail. By Romans 3:10 he can say “No one is acceptable to God”, – and that is serious .

So what’s the answer? Clearly not a set of rules, not a greater effort to be perfect. The good news is Jesus, who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sin. The acceptance we cannot earn we can accept as a gift, received by faith. Paul then goes on in chapter 4 to show how this worked out in Abraham. It was, he insists, Abraham’s faith, and not his achievements, that made him God’s friend and won his place in Jewish and Christian history.

So we come to chapter 5, and today’s epistle (we read Romans 5:1-11 ). Faith in Jesus, trust in his sacrifice for us, bring us reconciliation to God. It doesn’t mean we shall have an easy life – in fact it can bring persecution and suffering – but even then we shall have hope. When we think that Jesus died for those who were his enemies, we see something of God’s love.

This is not widely understood in our culture (perhaps not in any culture). Many people seem to think “Don’t worry about sin, it doesn’t matter, God won’t make a fuss!” But it does matter, and it separates us from a just and holy God. The answer is not forgetfulness, nor greater effort to be perfect – the answer is the sacrifice of Jesus, a gift we accept by faith. God does for us what we cannot do.

So what does a Christian life look like in these terms? Let me pass on a story:

Disillusioned with the view of God she had been taught, Karema began searching for spiritual answers as a young graduate. The wonder of God humbling himself and coming into the world as a man, sharing our experiences and pain, was crucial in Karema’s journey of accepting Christ as her Saviour. 

When her community learned of her belief in Christ, Karema realised she was in danger and fled her home country. She is now ministering to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, meeting practical needs and teaching the Bible to those hungry for spiritual truth, as she was once herself. 

Karema shared her story. She says, “They asked ‘Why are you so kind to us, what is behind this?’ so we explained how Jesus had put in our hearts to go and help the strangers.”

That sort of story is challenging to us, but I think it rightly understands the gospel. In the Thanksgiving prayer at the eucharist (Church in Wales, Lent) we say: “By Jesus’ grace, we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” It was living “no longer for herself alone” that raised the questions Karema answered with the story of Jesus.

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

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

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

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