Category Archives: Letters

Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

Just do it!

Discrimination is Out. Increasingly it’s illegal. You mustn’t make assumptions about people who are a certain colour, a certain age, or who turn up in a wheelchair – and that’s good. Christians should benefit from religious tolerance.

On the other hand, to check your tax return find somebody who can add up; to tackle the hard work in your garden, somebody over 7 stone (50 Kg); to diagnose your illness someone good at medicine, and to cook the meal you eat out, somebody discriminating.

James is talking (we read James 2:1-17) to a community of Jewish Christians where the rich get better treatment than the poor. He won’t have it, for both are Christian neighbours. It seems that while they give the poor a hard time, they also suffer being bullied or persecuted by the rich v6. Is that relevant to us? Our communities vary – but you might like to think how money complicates international Christian relations! Theology can be bent by sponsorship offers.

James goes on talk about the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Then points out that it is no good to be loving in one way while forgetting another. Christian living is not about doing the bits you like and forgetting the rest. It is no use not murdering if you’re a professional thief, being proud of not committing adultery if you regularly lie about other people. It all matters, including how we treat the poor. There’s no “balance” of failure and success – but a great need for mercy, on our part, as well as our judge’s.

Finally, the test of faith. Do they believe, these people James writes to? He doesn’t want words, if they believe, it’ll show. Real faith is not about measuring passion, but about converting into obedience. “Sincerity” is not about a style of self-presentation, or carefully crafted words. To want to do as Jesus did, to live like him and imitate him, needs motivation. Real faith motivates; if we expect to get away with fine sentiments, the faith is fake.

This is no evangelistic letter; James is not going to run through basic Christian beliefs or outline the gospel. What he wants to make sure is that people who live as a Christian community should behave as a Christian community. Not hot air, but hot meals for the hungry, not fine words about Jesus, but the hard work of obeying him and becoming like him. It is a searching test, and too often churches in the past have been marked as failing by the communities in which they live.

James the Practical

Over the next 5 weeks, we shall be reading James’ letter. Today we start with James 1:17-27 (or read the whole chapter?) and begin to discover a practical faith which has much to offer.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above” verse 17. God is good, and that is something to celebrate. But what do you mean, can you justify that? Well James points the way. v19 Everyone should be quick to listen and v25 “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it”. We need to listen, to pay attention, to go on learning. In what ways is God good, what has he done – what is he doing now, what is he like, would you want to know (and could you avoid him if you didn’t)?

I wonder, does every Christian go on learning; do I remember that I need to?

It’s not enough just to listen, you must also SPEAK. Not too fast – let what you understand shape your words. v26, and there is a warning about anger v19b,20 There is a lot of anger around, often from wrong expectations (the obsession with me and my way, rather than a concern for all the community). Anger can motivate us to put things right for other people, but too often, like so much speech, it is just selfish. (If you also read the lesson from Deuteronomy, you will have heard about the need to pass on God’s Law, another aspect of the need to speak). James will have more to say about speaking , but let’s remember our need to speak well, and use speech to help us learn the way of Christ.

Listen, and then speak, and then DO. We have a problem today: some Christians want to do as they like (not listening), some get deeply into theological argument (and don’t act). But when we do something, we find out how good our understanding and motivation really are. James lays it out for us. Don’t just “go to Church”; Listen, so that you can learn and grow closer to God; Speak – speak well, to help your learning, and to help the people you speak to; and act on what you learn.

Christians have been observed over the years; the present generation has found us wanting. They do not believe, from the evidence of our lives, that God is good. It is a fair challenge, which we need to answer in practical ways.

Warfare

Paul is writing a letter, but he is under guard in prison (we have come to Ephesians 6:10-20). He uses the picture, setting faith in the ordinary world – even his. We can imagine him listening to soldiers boasting of old campaigns.

He asks first, Who is the enemy? The temptation is to identify a person, a party, an opinion. All mistakes. “we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces “ (Ephesians 6:12) This is very important – there is a Christian fight. We may not like violence – and that is good – but faith is not a genteel discussion, but a struggle. To live as a Christian is to face opposition, difficulty, and temptation.

Paul picks up the soldier’s equipment to explain. (Perhaps he watched the guard coming on duty shed the gear in which they had just been inspected?). We notice the need for practice and experience (verse 13). (In passing we might add that the Roman army used discipline and working together to overcome larger numbers). What does he examine? The belt is Truth. It’s not about winning the argument, but about keeping with the reality of God. Righteousness is a breastplate. When you are accused, you need to be sure of forgiveness and status as a free child of God.

Shoes (sandals, well think boots) are Good News – that travels well. Faith is a shield; you don’t know or understand everything – but trust that God does. Salvation is helmet, protecting the brain that matters, even if other bits suffer. Prayer reminds you to work with God always – individual enterprise is dangerous!

There is only one weapon (despite many pieces for protection) – the word of God as sword. Not hard and cutting words, but the ones God gives which go straight to the heart of the matter.

That, says Paul in prison, is your equipment. Learn to use it, practice and get comfortable with every bit before you go into a serious fight.

Perhaps you still don’t like the thought? You wanted a quiet life, not a punch up? Will you end up with the Jews in Capernaum Jesus asked “Does this make you want to give up?” (John 6:61). Or are you with Joshua and his family (in Joshua 24), deciding to be with God and rejecting the alternatives.

This military metaphor is – only a metaphor (the weapons are differently allocated to spiritual qualities in other places). But it is also a reality to be faced while there is time for reflection.

Make it up as you go along?

Today we read on in the part of Ephesians where Paul sets out the consequences of Christian faith. (The reading is Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2)

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Ephesians 4:25

Last week I pointed out that the letter to Ephesians divides at 4:1 between what God has done (chapters 1-3) and the consequences (4-6). There is always the temptation to think we know already. How often do we hear “I know right from wrong!”. I suggest we need to look carefully, to re-read the instructions. Look at this verse. Lying is normal in many societies, now as always. Yet it causes great problems.

If Christians were known as people who always spoke truly, think of the difference it would make! There would be great demand for them in politics, management, unions, caring professions, police . . But Christians aren’t known for telling the truth, which is a pity.

But it is about far more than job opportunities. Think about ourselves. Lying is often about boasting, or trying to protect yourself. What if we told, and knew, the truth about ourselves? Self-assessment with humility and honesty, but not leaving out the positives: gifts, opportunities, abilities to serve. There would be real advantages, but how are we to get there? We would have to develop the habit of speaking the truth among ourselves – with proper respect, and honest re-direction of misunderstanding and false ambition.

Then, what about the truth about other people? Are they celebrity superstars, or rubbish? Neither, of course. They are sinners, like us. Flawed, but with the hope of repentance, forgiveness, and new life given by a gracious God. We need to be honest about that, and ready to speak of it.

I could go on. What about the truth about what we are doing to our environment? About the true need for Fair Trade? How does God truly see our church, and others? If we were known as people who could be relied on to tell the truth, with gentle respect, trust among Christians would increase, giving a new quality to fellowship between believers. Christians would be more valued in the community.

So, yes, truth is important. It needs more thought and practice. And this is just the first verse of 8 in the 2nd reading of 3. We don’t know it all; we need to look more carefully, and then with God’s help, to practice!

So What?

If you have been following readings from Ephesians, you may remember Paul has first covered “theory”. He has talked about the blessings received through Christ, the dangers of that time (not only as Paul was a prisoner), and the unity of Jew and Gentile in a shared faith. So we come to Ephesians 4:1-16 (or 1-24), and Paul comes to the consequences of faith.

The first thing is unity, mutual dependence – according to one commentator “the fundamental principle of corporate life”. The focus of this unity is not common ritual or practice, but one Lord. The body looks to him, the Spirit comes from Him, the faith (and baptism) are in Him.There is great danger when unity is focused elsewhere – in a building, in a denomination, in habit. These destroy unity, and provide no base for humility, gentleness, patience and love. On the other hand, loyalty and commitment to God in Christ lead on to these. This is an important part of what Paul is saying. “All life should be lived as an expression of and response to God’s calling”

Then (vv7-16) comes a surprise. Rather than the victor demanding tribute, Christ gives gifts, to equip the Church and facilitate the ministry of all its people. The pattern is clearly unity, not in uniformity but in diversity – a variety of gifts used to promote mature faith which makes a resilient body of believers not easily mislead. It is interesting that the most “gifted” (for all are gifted) are themselves to be seen as gifts, not an authority figures, and are themselves part of the body. No role here for superheroes, just the call for every one to use what gifts they have, and encourage others to do so.

If Christian people are to be drawn together by loyalty to one Lord, and enriched by gifts deployed for the good of all, then in 4:17-24, (missed in our Sunday sequence – we start at v25 next week) as in 4:1 they are to live a new life. The selfish, morally blind life is to be abandoned in favour of a new way. The knowledge of God is important morally as well as intellectually, and Christian life is lived for God’s purpose, not simply our own pleasure or advantage. So v23 you are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”.

There is no shortage here of specific, and demanding, instructions (you may want to take away and think about those that are new, or that seem to affect you directly) – but everything is linked back to faith, and to what Christians have been given. Nothing here is “because I say so” or “we have always done it this way and so must you”. Paul’s appeal is that Christians should live “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” 4.1 Those who are most aware of how much they have been given, how greatly they need rescue from themselves and their world, are most likely to be ready to hear and respond to the call to a new life. I hope that includes us.

Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

Oh heavens!

Have you ever thought that you might end up in heaven – and discover that you really didn’t like it there? (CS Lewis developed the idea in his book “The Great Divorce”). It’s not that I want to worry you, or cause nightmares, but it will certainly be very different!

The idea came to me as I thought about Ephesians 2:11-22. The question of Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds doesn’t seem very important to us now. The Ephesians – like most of us – came to faith from various positions, but few were of Jewish family. Paul is quite definite about there now being just one family and household of faith, which might seem uncontroversial.

Until you think about what it will be like to experience family life with all sorts of other Christians. How will you take to South American Pentecostals, or Asian members of ancient churches, or first nation people, or . . In heaven we shall be brought to understand that the God who has brought us together is greater and more precious than any of our distinctive traditions, or the families we come from, the lives we have lead . .

So, it may be all right in heaven, but perhaps we should start preparing now? After all, if we can think about what really matters and lasts for eternity, and what is going to be left behind, would it not smooth the transition? Or do we find that we are too attached to some temporary things, and want to say that they are really much more important than – well, than God might think?

Back to normal?

The Covid pandemic is not “over”, but we are thinking of a return to “normal”. Our reading from Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) may take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. The letter begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work. Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about (as soon as we are allowed!) and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at this point. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of the last year lead on?

Why not tell this story now? Because it doesn’t fit with a secularised history. But our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not a story re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – life and love in bad times as well as good. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving lockdown and going back to routine. But while the world is tempted to write another history, we take with us the strength gained from the story written here. We know that there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Fireworks

We like to do well, and to encourage others – celebrating family and friends’ achievements. But we can overdo it! A proper ambition can become stressful competition of the most unhelpful sort. What to one person is friendly rivalry and motivation is to another a load of expectation and the fear of failure.

Paul had a problem with the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). He found that they were preferring to listen to other teachers, whose example was harmfully competitive, perhaps with a financial motive. His reaction is not to enter the competition, but to “boast”. There seems no doubt that “the man” who had the revelations he talks about is himself, but he prefers to boast about his weakness, so that he can focus on the strength God supplies.

This may seem remote from our experience, yet it has importance. On the one hand, we are warned against being competitive in telling stories of our religious experience. There is no merit in “experiences” unless they lead on to a changed character, and a life of faithful and effective service – and that can be seen without publicity. At the same time, we are reminded of God’s help, to provide what is needed (yes, not always what we want, or even think we need!). The focus should be on God, not on self-dramatisation.

On the other hand, those who choose Christian leaders, whether deciding which group to join, or which person gets a job, need to beware. The qualities that matter do not include an inflated sense of self-importance, nor stories of dramatic spiritual experience. If there is faith, the experience will show in gifts and character. If there is only a desire for excitement or the unusual, there is danger.