Monthly Archives: May 2020

All Together Now!

On the Sunday which we call Pentecost (after the Jewish festival), the “text of the day” is the story in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit, coming to a group of frightened disciples, transforms them into public witnesses for Jesus’ resurrection. The timid group who met fearfully behind locked doors are filled with power, and their numbers expand dramatically.

What more is there to say? Yet the church traditionally reads 3 or more sections of the Bible on a Sunday – and that provides depth. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:3-13 we find an additional perspective. There are gifts for every believer! Even in that congregation with few educated or wealthy people, it is not just for the leadership, or the “mature”. Everyone is expected to be gifted by the Spirit.

But this is not like Christmas, with competition to see who gets the best! The gifts are given to make it possible for each individual to serve. Paul makes it clear. Just as a living body needs different organs to work together, so the “Body of Christ”, the church, needs all the gifts the Spirit gives to different people to work together. In that way – and only in that way – the whole body is healthy and active.

It is a vision we struggle to put into practice. Ambition, pride and scorn get very much in the way. We don’t remember to identify our own gifts and use them. Sometimes we like to confuse the presents given by God’s Spirit with what we call “natural abilities” – as if they are not also given. And we always find it hard to listen to, and receive from, people who have a different personality, or background. God knows all about it! It is God’s wisdom that we recognise our need of one another in this way. We need to give, to look for the opportunities to use our gifts for others. And we need, no less, to receive humbly what others have to give us, gifts we do not get in any other way.

Reading 1 Corinthians 12 as well as Acts 2 may help us avoid the mistake of thinking that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are personal possessions. Yes, they are given to each of us personally. And yes, Peter becomes a faith “superhero” because of that sermon and its response. But before I get proud about my gifts, the Spirit makes clear both that these are God’s gifts, and that we must work together. Spiritual “character development” comes with spiritual “family life”, and can be both wonderful and challenging.

Suffering, Humility and Discipline!

Through the Easter season we have been reading the first letter of Peter, and noticed that he has a good deal to say about Christian suffering. (My computer Bible finds 6 matches for “Suffer” and another 3 for “Sufferings” in the 5 chapters in NRSV). It has come at an appropriate time with the covid 19 lockdown, but perhaps there is never an inappropriate time to remind followers of Jesus that their lives are no more likely than his to be trouble and stress free. Of course it often isn’t fair – but for everybody, life is like that.

Christians get added trouble because of their faith. It comes in many forms – dislike for people who act differently or stand out from the crowd; a reaction of guilt (even without critical comments); or a fear that they might be right! It is something we need to come to terms with.

Usefully, this week’s reading (given as 1 Peter 4. 12-14; 5. 6-11, but it might make more sense to read 1Peter 4:12 – 5:11) has more to say that might help. First is the idea of humility. (1Peter 5:5,6, and throughout). It is important that we have a realistic understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world and the church. That is not the same as saying we are worthless, which is untrue. Every person is made in the image of God, and loved – and so of enormous value. But that is every person, so we have to understand what our particular gifts are, and how they should be used to work in with others. Humility is about being “down to earth”, always remembering that earth is wonderful stuff that enables miracles of growth.

Humility provides some defence against suffering, helping deal with wounded pride and foolish ambition. With it, Peter commands discipline. Again, it is not a fashionable virtue, but one that shows its value in hard times. We have all been advised in lockdown to have a routine, to exercise, and eat and drink sensibly – yes, it’s a discipline. Peter is more concerned that we are alert to temptation, and ready for the service of God. In other texts, Paul talks about the discipline of the athlete in training, or the soldier on active service. We remember that discipline will not earn us God’s love or salvation, but it will enable us to better respond to those things in effective service.

I hope you have found 1 Peter a timely commentary on life after Easter in 2020. Perhaps, as we move towards Pentecost (are you using the Thy Kingdom Come app?) you might like to read the whole letter again?

The Ideal Lifestyle

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Some years ago David Atkinson pointed out that many people half believe the myths about the problem-free lives of “ideal” people, which does not help at all in facing problems. We all face problems, and many involve fear.

Peter tells us (in our reading of 1 Peter 3:13-22), ““Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”, which might sound like wishful thinking. But he gives a reason: “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord”. If Jesus is Lord, there is no need to fear anyone else. (Peter means it – he is talking to those facing persecution). It is part of the Easter message. Jesus has faced everything, and won! Since he is Lord of all, if you serve him, there is nothing to fear.

That does not mean you will lead a charmed life. V 17 “ For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Suffering may come, but cannot take away the really important things, so don’t worry about it.

Why do good people suffer? God knows, but it happened to Jesus, and many others, and sometimes that is how the gospel spreads. V15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”. Christians had, and have, a great impact. Arguably that comes more from simple believers sharing their faith, hope and love in difficult times than from learned arguments. Hopefully that is one of the things which will emerge from the coronavirus crisis. If Christians are known for being unafraid, practically helpful, but always gentle and respectful – that will get attention and raise questions, leading people to Jesus.

It is not about slogans, or advertising budgets, but a reality in our communities. Verses 19-22 might seem unclear, but Peter is talking about the commitment pledged in Baptism, and the grace of God which transforms people through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Have the myths of happiness in idle luxury, unconcerned with the world around, poisoned you? Or would you value a life without fear, experiencing the ups and downs, but in company with God’s family and travelling to a wonderful destination? Part of the Easter message is that the best lifestyle is yours for the asking.

If you know the truth behind “Jesus is Lord”, and claim it through baptism, then you have nothing to fear. Yes, you may still suffer (which threatens your comfort, not your security). And certainly you will be called on to explain your hope. But I think that gives most of us something to work on.

Between a rock and . .

I recently used the stones dug from my garden to build a small wall. Relying on what I remembered from a course a few years ago, I tried building without cement or other binder – relying on placing the stones together, and their own weight to keep them in position. So far, so good – it is only a small wall, with earth behind it on one side.

Peter’s letter (we have moved back to read 1 Peter 2:1-10 this week) invites Christians to let themselves be built together into a house. The foundation is Christ – Peter draws on Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 28:16 – but the stones are the individual Christians. God places them together. They are supported, by Christ and by one another, and in turn they support other Christians. The picture suggests there may be some pressure!

You may not feel attracted by this idea, or enthusiastic to be placed with others not of your choice. The key is probably verse 3 “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good”. If – a big and important if – you know that God has not only done good things in general, but for you personally, then you can have some confidence in God’s skill in construction. To the extent that you have experienced real care, personal forgiveness or restoration, then you will be prepared to be placed with others to achieve more than you can alone.

It is both an advantage and a difficulty of Christian life that it is lived with others. There is a reality in it, but sometimes the relationships generate friction (and heat!), as we learn to work together, care for one another, and be gentle with old injuries. Similarly, being built together involves pressures and strains. When it works well, these are shared and balanced. When it doesn’t, the build-up at one point can cause breakage and collapse.

If indeed our experience of God is good, and continues to grow in length and depth, we shall be better placed to be supported and to support. Perhaps we need to reflect on how, and how much, God has fed and supported us. Then we shall be more ready to take a place on the Christ foundation to make something greater than our individual selves, or even our local group, for the glory and service of God.

What’s Good about Suffering?

You might expect this week’s excerpt from Peter’s first letter to start at 2:18, or even 2:13, but no, the given reading is 1 Peter 2:19-25. I guess that the reference to slaves accepting the authority of their masters might make twenty-first century people think there is nothing here for them, but quite the opposite! We are all suffering Covid-19 lockdown. Suffering in different ways, perhaps, but I doubt if anyone much is enjoying it. So the question comes, can there be anything good about suffering?

And in one sense, the answer is no. Our God does not inflict suffering, as if it was a good thing, and certainly does not want us to enjoy suffering ourselves, or making others suffer. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is totally wasted.

Jesus suffered. It was unjust, and nasty – but it set us free! That doesn’t make it “right”; Pilate, Judas and others are guilty. But it is something we need to take note of. Peter speaks to Christians who are suffering, and will suffer, for a number of reasons. Some are slaves with pagan masters, others are oppressed in other ways.

He points them, not to futile rebellion or smouldering resentment, but to being aware of God. With God’s support, both to see them through difficult times, and to reassure them of final justice and the vindication of those wrongly accused, they can endure. That endurance will also be an advertisement for their faith, helping others to find truth and help.

His view was realistic and helpful in the first century – and still holds! We need a way to get through difficult times, and this is it. It helps us, and helps others at the same time. It doesn’t make everything right, or mean that we are going to enjoy what is happening. But it does mean that, in God’s world, nothing is wasted – not even the bad bits!

By the way, there is a well presented overview of 1 Peter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhP7AZQlzCg&list=PLH0Szn1yYNecanpQqdixWAm3zHdhY2kPR&index=27