Monthly Archives: March 2021

Attitude

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the background to a passage, like Philippians 2:5-11. Is Paul quoting a poem or hymn – and what difference would that make if it was true? Does that mean he agrees with every word, or is he just using something his readers already know to drive home a main point? Even more tantalising, is this a piece of encouraging teaching, or a gentle rebuke to leaders who are getting too competitive, or status conscious, or just proud of their position and achievements?

A little thought brings us back to the point, or perhaps points. “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”, or as the Good News Bible puts it, “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. Does it matter if Paul is quoting another writer? No, these words have to be taken seriously whoever the original human author was. And it is important we consider the words and what they have to say about Jesus, especially if in the next few days we will think again about his Passion and Death. That attitude? That readiness to endure quietly, to give in such an extreme way?

We could find it easier to speculate about whether this is encouragement or rebuke for the Philippian church leaders. We know our churches are not perfect, consisting as they do of sinners who may be forgiven, but are not yet sorted out. No doubt that was true of first century Philippi, too. But the question rebounds when we have the courage to ask of ourselves, “Can you take encouragement here? Does this help to heal wounds you have?”. After that, we may be able to face, “Do you understand the need to follow this lead, to repent of complacency, pride, failure to give the right lead?”

Of course, we may recognise that we are being told that it is not all about us. There is a focus here on Christ, the humble, victorious Christ. Do we need to redirect our focus, to find a centre there. Faith is not in ourselves, nor should we allow it to be re-defined as self-help, life coaching, or any other sort of egocentric rebranding.

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. I have a lot of work to do on that, but I can understand where the goal is.

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Basics

There are churches, and speakers, where you know that on every occasion you will be told that Jesus died for our sins, because, they say, that is the gospel. And they are right. The gospel is about Jesus, and the New Testament is quite clear that the climax of his ministry was his death, which was in some way for us. I can think of at least 2 reasons why Anglicans might not seem to say this so often. One is that they bore more easily, and don’t take to repetition. A better one would be that, though Jesus death for us is the centre of the gospel, there are many implications to work out, and enough to think about to keep many brilliant men occupied for more than a lifetime.

Nevertheless, if we are to talk of Ephesians 2:1-10, we shall have a timely revisiting of basic gospel, which we ought to have clearly in mind as our Christian foundation.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-3

Despite a generally held opinion, we learn there is nothing natural in going to heaven; we deserve judgement, and a very different fate. Perhaps that is something to come to terms with?

It is good to remember what we once were (and, especially if that is difficult, what we may again be tempted to be) – living according to our own desires. How often that is now given as a description of “retirement”! Be careful; there is nothing magic about Christian habits to stop you falling back into unfaith and God’s judgement. If that’s the bad – well serious – news, the good is wonderful

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:4-9

God loves us, and reaches out to help, – not because we are good, not because we deserve or earn it; but because he is that sort of God. Forgiveness is free! It’s very difficult to take that seriously. We are confused by people whose love is not unconditional, but it’s true. So we are free, and need to live like that!

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Yes, that is what we are made for. But the good work comes after forgiveness; it is a reaction, not a payback. Today many will celebrate family, and some will re-open old wounds. Yet the Christian hope of life is in a family where all are loved – loved and offered free forgiveness despite what they are and what they have done. It’s quite a family.

Together round – a Cross?

How do you feel about people whose idea of a day out is to visit the Chamber of horrors? Do you really want to know the technical details of gas chambers, electric chairs or guillotines? No? I find that encouraging. But why do Christians meet around a CROSS? People generally find “Christ crucified” a strange message, let alone Good News (we are reading 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ).

If God wanted to sort out the world, why not do it? We can’t explain God, but perhaps he could have abolished the troublesome human race, or just taken away our freedom to do evil? This would not be our preference, so what can God do to avoid wasting the lot of us, yet sort out the mess?

The answer is – the Cross.    And it is Good News, however odd, because it is about Victory over: Death, Evil, Temptation, plotting enemies, Failed friends, [Helplessness, despair, insignificance]. In fact everything we need to beat, because the Cross is the cross – a painful death by torture. It is about a depth of commitment (God’s), about not crushing the weak or the despairing, and about sharing in the worst of earthly life. It is NOT about personal success, or pretending. It has nothing to do with “image” or “status”. In fact the opposite, it is a constant reminder that left to ourselves, we invent methods of torture.

So what’s the problem? God isn’t playing the games people like to play. The Jews (verse 22; and many others) wanted miracles – let God do something dramatic to catch attention and entertain. The Cross is dramatic, but not entertaining; its too painful, not just for the victim. It doesn’t flatter us. The Greeks (verse 22) and many like them want wisdom.    They liked to debate, and wanted to find truth in assertions of human dignity, in the heroic potential of the human spirit. The Cross tells us of humanity in such a dangerous mess that they couldn’t help themselves, and needed to be rescued.

The Church in Corinth wasn’t rich, didn’t have any geniuses; they were people others liked to make fun of, and God chose to use to show his power.    That’s the problem, as Christians we are people of the Cross, we can’t say how wonderful we are, but verse 31.

“Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:31

So I hope you understand why the Cross is much more than a symbol, and stands as a summary of Christian faith. Faith which is Good News, because God doesn’t sort out the world by wasting us when we fail to meet his standards, but chooses instead the difficult and painful way of suffering the worst to offer us the best, and leaves us a reminder that shows the depth of his commitment, the greatness of his victory, and the depths to which we fall if we choose to go it alone.