Monthly Archives: February 2021

Good enough?

Paul faced fury in some quarters for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism; it provoked persecution and the division of the Christianity from Judaism. 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. It may help to look at what is being said around our reading of Romans 4:13-25. In Romans 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law, that is the Old Testament as we know it. 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. That’s a long time ago, but the relevance to us is in the question: “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 many 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. 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. v35 “us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our sanctification.” We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised.

What caused a fuss in the first Century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way like this. 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.

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.

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!

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.