Category Archives: Letters

Gifts to share

There are many sorts of churches to be found today. Large and small, traditional and very new, in a variety of western and eastern cultural styles. The diversity may sometimes be helpful, but a little baffling. I wonder if you have ever thought of categorising them by their ideal member?

Some patterns are clearly not good: the church where the ideal member is rich and gives a lot of money does not have much to commend it; nor does the church where the ideal member is clearly a “very important person” or recognised celebrity. Others are a bit more mixed: a church which expects humility has not got it all wrong – but may be in danger of oppressing members; a church which expects keen, extrovert enthusiasm likewise has some understanding, but may undervalue the quiet and thoughtful. Sadly many seem to think the ideal Anglican is dumb and never causes any trouble by questioning or disagreeing with anything!

It is interesting to note that Jesus didn’t seem to have a “preferred personality” for his disciples. They were mixed socially, professionally, and there were women in support as well as men. Some had traumatic backgrounds, others were educated, or ordinary working people.

So when Paul wants to tell us about Spiritual Gifts (in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11), we need to take notice, and not mutter excuses about preferring to make the tea or do the practical things. What he has to say is very straightforward, but seldom listened to or taken seriously.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

1 Cor 12:1-3

The Holy Spirit is expected to be active in all Christians from baptism, and makes faith possible in word and deed, which is how it is expected to show.

 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

1 Cor 12:4-7

to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” There are things the Spirit does for the individual Christian ( – we call those “fruit”, and look at Galatians 5:22.) But here Paul says the spirit provides each and every Christian with a spiritual gift to use for the community. You have been given something to use for everyone else’s good – and each of them has something, too.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Cor 12:7-11

I don’t see Paul talking about being nice to people, or organising rotas – though both can be helpful. We have to face up to the fact that Paul says everyone is given a Spiritual Gift so that the congregation can be enriched and drawn together by the exchange of gifts and the mutual benefit. If we don’t identify our gifts, or refuse to practise them, then we weaken the church. If we don’t encourage other people to recognise and use their gifts, again, the fellowship is damaged.

This isn’t about some pushy people dominating the group, quite the opposite, it is about the group working to recognise and help each to contribute and all to benefit.

So what is the ideal member of our church? Not a particular type or personality, but someone happy to accept and use what God has given them for the benefit of others, and to receive from others what they can usefully offer. I wonder if we are like that yet?

No lack of effort

God certainly tries hard! Over the ages he has used every way possible to be heard and understood. There is a debate about whether God can be “seen” in nature – if you go for a walk in the next few days, you can test it out, and wonder if the order and goodness say something to you. Then there are the Patriarchs: God’s work with people starts with some rugged individuals – Abraham, leaving the world he knew for a promise, then Isaac and wily Jacob.

Moses forms a nation as he leads slaves out of Egypt – not for the last time God says something about setting people free – and gives them a Covenant, to direct their relationship with God. Sacrifices and festivals help to shape their character. Some don’t respond to that, so there are prophets. Some (Isaiah, Nathan) work within the system; others (Amos, Jeremiah) are radical dissidents – but all speak for God to guide and correct.

So give God credit. Through the events of history, through a variety of people (all sorts of people!), through the written word, through creation itself, God is communicating, trying to make himself understood.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

Hebrews 1:1-2

That is what the New Testament reading for Christmas Day (Hebrews 1:1-4) is saying. God, the abstract absolute, becomes a human being in order to make himself more easily understood. But being the sort of God he is, does not arrive as Superman, but as a baby, vulnerable, needing the protection of those who care – at some cost to themselves. That tells us amazing things about God, and his desire to work with us, but leave us the freedom to choose.

And that is what we celebrate. Jesus, who communicates God not just when he grows up and tells us by parables and teaching, but by the way he arrives, the life he lives, the fact that he is content to live our life. He gives significance to every part of our life – work and rest, family, community. God communicates, not by shouting louder, but by removing every obstacle for those who want to hear. So celebrate now, but don’t stop listening.

Better than Sacrifices

What’s going on? You may say it on joining a group of people after being out of the room, or on coming across a riot, or in other circumstances. We hope people will ask it of Christmas: What’s going on? What does it all mean? Why the celebration? The writer to Hebrews explains in Hebrews 10:5-10 “when Christ was about to come into the world” and he uses words quoted from Psalm 40:6-8 to explain What’s going on – the purpose and significance of Christ, his birth, life and death (confusingly, he uses Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which differs slightly from the Hebrew original behind our English translations).

What is the main point? OBEDIENCE is very much more important than SACRIFICE. The punch line is

Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—     I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:7

Of course, sacrifice was set out in Old Testament, but it was educational, and temporary. The killing of animals who had no idea of what was going on might teach the cost of sin, and God’s ownership of all creation, but it offered no lasting solution to restoring the relationship between God and his people. Even in those times, prophets and others pointed beyond the observance of sacrifice; now Jesus arrives, and

And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Hebrews 10:10

This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the beginning of Jesus perfect obedience through life, and to death, which is the perfect sacrifice. It leaves us to think about our own obedience. Sacrifice is much easier – I’ll go to church, I’ll give some money. Obedience lets God into all sorts of things; will I do things that way – will I let God tell me how to do everything? Sacrifice is easier, because it is limited; obedience is better but it is the best and fullest way!

Forced Smiles?

In Christian worship, some things work and others don’t. That’s OK – you’re allowed to make mistakes. If it’s just minor , we smile and even enjoy it. Other bits matter more. For example, when we say “Lift up your hearts” (as many churches do at the beginning of the consecration of bread and wine) – and you say “Yes, we are suitably solemn and miserable, you can go on, and, oh yes, ‘We lift them to the Lord’”. That really doesn’t work! – which is a pity. Worship isn’t about reading the right words from a book. Useful as careful words can be, there has to be a reality about the whole thing.

“Rejoice in the Lord” says Paul to the Philippians (reading Philippians 4:4-7). He doesn’t say “be happy”, because that would not be practical – Christians are not meant to be grinning idiots, ignorant or uncaring about the difficulties and pains of the world and its peoples. He does say, “Rejoice in the Lord always”; ‘in the Lord’ helps – this is not about me and my situation, my success and failure. It is about what God has done, is doing, and will do – but it requires me to want to see further than my own horizon.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all” – because if you can look beyond your selfish issues to God, you will find it easier to see other people and their issues also in the perspective of God. “Do not be anxious about anything” Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6)? It’s the same sort of thing – if you can see things as God does, some of them change significance.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding”, because some people will never understand how there could be another way of looking at life. But you should, for your own good. Rejoice! You can’t always be happy, but joy can find a place even in sorrow. The Lord is near – whether he is coming back soon, or near us as we worship, or both!. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8) I hope you understand – what Paul says to the Philippians is not some trivial “Cheer up, it could be worse”. This is not some emotional self-help manual, but a key part of Christian faith: you must look beyond yourself to God, beyond your situation to the actions of God, and

“Lift up your hearts”

Those words have been used for at least 1700 years – we call them Sursum Corda from the Latin – by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and some Methodist and Presbyterian Christians. Not because they didn’t understand, or couldn’t be bothered to change, but because they say something important. Make the effort – see what God has done, and is doing, and be glad of it! Our worship will not be perfect on earth, but do watch out for those words, and use them as a reminder to rejoice, not to be happy, but to rejoice.

Bits of Good News

When Paul writes warmly to the Christians in the Greek city of Phillippi, it is clear that he feels they are close. Part of that is shown in Philippians 1:6 ( we are reading Philippians 1:3-11 ), which talks about the “day of Christ Jesus” – the day Jesus will return, with judgement. You might think that this is not a positive message, but think again. One of the attractive things about Christian faith is the sense that nobody gets away with anything, and even better because it is not our job to bring injustice to light and administer judgement. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t report criminals and uphold the law – of course we should. But all human investigation and punishment is partial and flawed, all verdicts conditional. The final justice, administered with mercy and full understanding, is up to God. And that’s good news, for all will be fair, and we needn’t worry about those who appear to be getting away with things.

Final judgement is an Advent theme, appropriate for the time leading up to Christmas. Another “Christmassy” part of this text is fellowship, the experience of Christians who don’t just try to live the same faith, but find a deep unity of purpose and values in the life they share. Paul talks here of the “partnership in the gospel” v5 which he shares with these people, who are more than friends. His prayer for them is love, knowledge and depth of insight (v9) – things that will help them live and work together, and get things right as they prepare for what is to come. It may not have happened yet, but it is an important perspective for us too! It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen for another ten thousand years after our death, but we should be ready for it one afternoon next week!

There is one more encouragement in v 6. However much we may find life difficult, or make a mess of it, God is not giving up on us! People who have begun to welcome the love God offers should know it will not be withdrawn. This is the basis of “assurance”, not a foolish carelessness with the important consequences of life choices, but a confidence that the God who has called us and given us love and forgiveness will not lose interest or change character.

Judgement, fellowship, assurance: three more reasons to be thankful for the gospel good news, and three things to share.

Ready . .

Paul followed up his quick ministry in Thessalonica by a visit from Timothy, and then this letter (today we read 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13). Thessalonica may have been a poor community, and certainly included converted pagans. Christian faith was a problem for them, when not only social life, but political and economic life revolved around the pagan cults and practices. So their identity, as individuals and as a Christian group becomes very important.

Paul isn’t with them, but in this (the first or second Christian document to be preserved), he uses a letter to extend his presence, and offer the encouragement and teaching he would have given in person. Apart from wanting to be with them, Paul prays that they may “increase and abound in love” (v12) Of course this is fundamentally Christian, a fruit of the spirit, a basic thing for the group to hold together and enable its members. But notice: Paul does not want them to love the people in the group and recognise the difference of people outside. Though that would build up the group cohesion, he wants their love to “overflow for each other and for everyone else”

Our identity as Christians is an issue for us (and yes, it can be difficult in a work team, school or social group where we are the odd ones). So is love – the world needs more of it. Proper love, love for the difficult and unlovely, love of the sort that God shows for us, and we reflect. There is a challenge here, and a reassurance. A Challenge, to make the comment “See how these Christians love one another” be a real mark of respect, not a cynical comment about a divided and difficult group; a Reassurance, that God could and did love a church of poor people with colourful pasts, and bring them to faith.

It would probably be popular to stop with love. Paul doesn’t, he goes on to ask “May [God] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones” v13. He wants these Christians to be holy – to be separated from evil and wrong, to show the character and purpose of God in their lives. Why? not just because it would be nice, but to be ready for Jesus return. That concentrates the mind – for us too. Jesus will return, and we shall give an account of ourselves, revealed as we really are. Advent is a time to prepare for the Coming of Jesus. Do some Christmas shopping by all means, but the more important preparation is of ourselves and our lives.

Love and holiness are vital for us, as for the Thessalonians. Our identity as Christians, individually and as a group, is a strength and protection. Let us value and work on these things, as we wait for the great day.

What to take?

If you are invited out, you take something with you – a bottle of wine if you go for a meal, some flowers or chocolates if you stay, the same or a card if someone does something for you. Some families do this more than others, but we try to be thoughtful. So, what do you take to God? He is our host, we his guests. (And No, it isn’t your collection. – that’s a thank offering, enabling the worship event and wider Christian work.)

Hebrews 10:11-25 has some answers. The Jewish priests kept offering sacrifices day after day. But the author has told us that Jesus was a priest, who offered his own life just once (last week’s reading Hebrews 9:24-28) – and then sat down. Why does that matter? Because it is done, past. No addition, no alteration.

When we come to worship, we cannot bring a fee, or a fine (the price is too high), we come because Jesus has made the sacrifice for us to be forgiven.

With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

Hebrews 10:14

Not perfect as people, but able to come to a perfect God.

So, welcome to worship. We are not present as those who qualify (“We do not presume to come, . . trusting in our own righteousness, but in God’s mercy”, as the Book of Common Prayer says) – mercy shown by the provision of a sacrifice made once, once for all.

19 We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus

Hebrews 10:19

Unlike those who worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, and were kept out of the central space of the temple by barriers and a curtain, we can meet with God. So

22 So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water.

Hebrews 10:22

There is a reference here to baptism, but also the reality of forgiveness following repentance and faith. That’s how we find ourselves with others in God’s presence at worship. And there are consequences:

23 Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. 24 Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. 25 Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.

Hebrews 10:23-25

It is easy to be distracted, confused or diverted by things that happen, so we need to focus. As we do that there is a responsibility to work together, and not to forget to meet together for worship. There is a reminder of the Day of the Lord – we look to Christmas, and to Jesus eventual return. We need to be ready – me, you, and everybody around. Jesus has done something quite amazing. We can’t add to it, but we need to let people know, so that they can take advantage.

Sacrifice.

Sacrifice is difficult in a selfish and materialistic age, yet it still happens – and we may be thankful. Some Parents learn to sacrifice, and benefit themselves by it, so also some carers, and some in public service. All can get it wrong, parents trying to live through their children, carers also trying to control, volunteers wanting to do their own thing . . Sacrifice is not easy!

Sacrifice means to give away something of value in hope of gaining. Literally “to make holy,” for many religions have had some idea of sacrifice. Christians would see it in the Old Testament sacrifices, especially Passover, but above all in Jesus. So letter to Hebrews has much to say about Jesus. (reading Hebrews 9:24-28).

What is so special about Jesus and his death?

  • it is an undeserved death – he was not guilty of any crime, yet he suffers voluntarily. He does not escape arrest, for he has come from heaven to die. This is strange, yet significant.
  • his death is the culmination of his life – not consequence of foolishness or risk taking, but living for others (and accepting the sacrificial consequences). He has gone without family, career, comfort, to do this.
  • he dies for people who have little idea what is happening, and offer no support. Yet his love is sufficient – and effective, for his death sets us free, and brings (not just to a local circle of friends, but to humanity) the possibility of forgiveness through repentance and faith.

So sacrifice is valued, not just when there is an accident with unpleasant consequences, but as an embodiment of Christlikeness – of Christian virtue. Remembering the sacrifice of others may not be comfortable – we prefer to see ourselves as the Saviour, rather than the Saved. Yet this is part of the “offence of the gospel”, the difficulty that we cannot do what is needed, and must rely on God to act, sacrificially, for us.

That Jesus died is history; that those who watched the execution understood little and had little hope is pretty clear; that they were wrong – and Jesus was right in his teaching, and his choices – depends on the Resurrection for support. He died, as a sacrifice, offered by himself. But for me? That is something that needs decision.

Absolute Ruler

Every child knows that Jesus is the first name (we used to say Christian name) of the story character whose surname is Christ. Except that it isn’t. Christ translates Messiah, or King – and the oddity is that such an absolute monarch should be a name so commonly referred to.

For those fortunate enough to live in western democracies, equality and the answerability of political leaders are assumed. If we have affection for royal families, it is as constitutional monarchs, performing representative roles in charitable and community-affirming events. The thought of absolute monarchs exercising unquestionable and unchallenged authority is alien and repugnant.

So we need Hebrews (and this week Hebrews 9:11-14) to explain how and why Christians should even contemplate such a culturally inappropriate idea. The passage begins “when Christ came. .”. The use of the title is significant. The King came. This Sunday some of us begin to mark “Kingdom Season” – partly beginning the run up to Christmas with a pre-advent look at the reign of God. That doesn’t explain our giving this title, but Hebrews does.

This King rules, not because he has taken power by force, (although there is a story about his victory), nor even because he has replaced a worse administration, (interestingly, equally true).

This King is recognised and celebrated because, as High Priest, he made a unique and perfect offering of himself. This is no bribe to secure support. He gives what we cannot access in any other way. He rules because his subjects willingly offer their allegiance and obedience, not to a leader among equals, but as King by right. He rules because of what he gives, not what he can take, demand or threaten.

It is a strange thing, and a reminder just how counter-cultural Christian faith is. Yet it is a source of freedom, celebration and peace. No difficult negotiations here, no pressure groups, campaigning and lobbying. Christ is King, reliable, celebrated, our Lord, not our equal.

Perfect Friend

I don’t know if children long for a perfect friend. It should be the theme of a story – an understanding and sympathetic friend, who was never absent at the wrong moment, and always loyal and able to be really helpful whatever the situation. Perhaps it is not only something for children. We are told of increasing loneliness among adults, as fewer live with others by choice rather than necessity, and much work has become less social (even before Covid working at home).

So when we read Hebrews 7:23-28, there should be points of contact. The writer begins with the way the temple priesthood of the Old Testament was interrupted by the death of successive generations of High Priest. That’s one of the problems with friends; some move away, and some die before we do.

Then there is the point about being perfect. Our friends aren’t, however much we like them and deal with their oddities and failures. The perfect sinlessness of Jesus is awesome, but not alien, because we know he lived and faced all the temptations and difficulties we share (and others besides!).

Of course Jesus is much more than a “friend”, as his once for all sacrifice which meets our need for ever demonstrates. But if this puts him in another category, it does not mean that a longing for a perfect friend is unfulfilled, or impossible. Jesus has met our need, been available – and will always continue to do and be just that. Friend isn’t a big enough word, but it is a start.