Category Archives: Letters

Motivation.

What is strong enough to motivate your Christian life? What will not only start you off with good intentions, but keep you going, month by month and year by year? If you read 2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2, you will hear Paul telling us how Moses came down from his meeting with God glowing. The experience had been wonderful – and it was obvious to those who saw him. Experience is important – whether we look back to a dramatic experience of God, or a turning point in our lives. Or perhaps we don’t have anything quite so exciting, but still need to look for the ways God has helped and guided us at different times – often through other people, perhaps a book, or a new understanding. Moses “glow” was a bit offputting for the people; Paul says it faded, and certainly it wasn’t enough to keep the people of Israel confident and faithful in the wilderness. Looking back can be comforting and helpful, but it may not be enough.

If experience isn’t enough to motivate us, what about the feel-good factor? If Christianity is good for us, if it brings us to our full potential and helps us realise our true purpose in life, isn’t that going to be rewarding and wonderful? The trouble is that it is rather like a healthy diet and regular exercise. We know it ought to be good, but keeping it up can be – difficult. As the Israelites headed into the desert, they might have known that they were being formed into God’s people, ready to establish themselves in the Promised Land. But they still squabbled, and sinned, and wanted to give up and go back to slavery etc. Yes, Christian living is good for you, but like the best medicine, it sometimes tastes really terrible.

So what is going to motivate you, if experience and the feel-good factor aren’t enough? Paul tells the Corinthians that the Law of Moses wasn’t enough, because the Spirit was lacking. Jesus motivates his closest disciples, not just by a sight of his glory, but by reference to his coming death. An individual Christian, or a congregation, has to be motivated by knowing that Jesus died for us. It’s a difficult thing to come to terms with. It needs thought and prayer – and then response. And that response comes at many levels: rational, emotional, personal and relational.

It is the Cross, – our understanding that Jesus death is for us, and does for us what we most need and cannot do for ourselves – that has, through the Spirit, the power to motivate and transform. We need our experience of faith. Not to seek or manufacture the dramatic, but to recognise and value God’s working with us and on us. We need the feel good factor, to remind ourselves that Christian faithful living is truly best, most fulfilling, purposeful and successful. Bbut only when we have come to terms with the death of Jesus for us will our motivation be sufficient and our response the depth and continuity that the Spirit can bring.What is strong enough to motivate your Christian life? God’s Spirit, yes, but the Spirit allowed to continue work because we know the importance or our life for which Christ died, the love in which we are held, and the hope which we are given.

Resurrection – am I bovvered?

Why is Resurrection so important? Paul devotes a long chapter (58 verses) to the subject in his letter to the Corinthians (it is 1Corinthians 15, and today we read 1 Corinthians 15:12-20), and it begins to come clear. It sounds very much as if the news that has come back to him from that church has included some nervousness and uncertainty. Some of the members had died. Had they made some terrible mistake? Would these people miss out what had been promised?

Paul wants to calm them down, and takes the opportunity to explain a fundamental part of Christian faith. He starts by saying that he had passed on the Christian message as he had received it: Jesus died for our sins, as scripture had foretold, and had been raised from death to appear before witnesses. It was the way he was proved right in all he had said and done. It was the ultimate seal of approval.

But this isn’t only about proving Jesus right, important as that is. Paul adds v19 “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”. Why try to live as a Christian if it is difficult and sometimes even dangerous? Why didn’t Paul settle somewhere comfortable and teach only people who wanted to hear him? Why the courage of missionaries, the persistence of those looking for justice, and the endurance of those who have accepted hardship and slander to serve? Why? Because Christian faith is not lived to make life easy. It is lived in gratitude and service to God with an eye on eternity, and a judgement on our stewardship after life is done.

The Resurrection of Jesus the “first fruits of those who have died” v20 is a promise of our future – a promise, even for the extremely elderly, of glorious things to come, with justice and mercy. There are lots of questions. Some are tackled in the rest of the chapter, and some remain unclear. Life in the Resurrection is going to be very different, and probably unimaginable. But the resurrection of Jesus, reported by witnesses and evidenced by the change in the disciples lives from despair to hope, is vital to our faith.

It vindicates what Jesus said and did – all that he was.

And it gives us hope of life in eternity, which underlies our life of service, and sometimes difficulty, now.

Gospel – really!

What is the gospel? There are so many different versions:

  • Being nice to people
  • Keeping the Commandments
  • Ecology
  • Tolerance

– but rules of behaviour are not the gospel. Or we might suggest:

  • Finding God
  • the meaning of life
  • the way things are
  • identity

but again, these are not the gospel. They may be good, they may be things Christians should do because of their faith. But they are not gospel, not basic.

Today we read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, which tells us. Gospel is: about Jesus. It is about his death and resurrection setting us free. Paul says that was his first and fundamental message. Is it only Paul? No, Luke 5 underlines that the gospel is about Jesus, who saves us and changes us and our future. This is the good news – for gospel is literally “good news”. It is for us whether we are new to church, or members for decades, and it is for all.

And importantly, it is NOT advice about how to behave; it is NOT a system of thought, a philosophy, or a theory. It is about Jesus, and God’s plan that through Jesus we might be given the life and freedom and hope we could not gain on our own.That’s why it’s good news – and important that it is delivered and heard as good news.

And all the other things? Most of them are results, consequences of our taking the good news seriously and responding to it. If God sets us free, then maybe our lives should follow his pattern;

  • if he created the universe, then maybe we should look after it;
  • if he loves people, maybe we should do the same
  • if he can cope with us, why should we not see ourselves as he does?

– you can go on, and it is useful to do so. But don’t lose sight of that first and basic point. What is the gospel? It isn’t about the way we do church, or how we ought to behave, or theory of any sort. Gospel is Jesus – Jesus living, dying and rising to set us free. That is what God has done for us; its good news, and we ought to share it.

All you need is . .

Love. Love gets a good press, and remains universally popular. Yet Christian Love is somehow different. The early Christians knew:

  • love as family feeling
  • love as friendship with equals
  • love as sexual attraction

and still had to invent a new word for this quality of Jesus!

Now, let’s try a little experiment. I want you to read this with me:

I am patient and kind.
I do not demand my own way.
I am not irritable, and I keep no record of when I have been wronged.
I am never glad about injustice but rejoice whenever the truth wins out.
I never give up, never lose faith, am always hopeful, and endure through every circumstance.”

Did you have any difficulty in saying that? You may have recognised it was from 1 Corinthians 13 (today’s reading is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13). But was it true? Did you laugh, or wonder if anyone hearing you might have laughed? Being honest, most of us would admit that – well, we don’t quite measure up to that.

So love is admired, important, and Christian. But it’s one thing to KNOW it, another to BE it. Growing up means taking Jesus as our model, and so we need to know him better. We also need the Holy Spirit to be working on our character, our motivation, and our habits. You may know the gospel stories well, but need to ask “How does that fit?”, “How do I do anything like that?”. It is a good question.

Body parts

The covid pandemic has taught us, again, how much we rely on other people. It is not so much the cutting edge medical discoveries – though we have been glad of rapidly developed vaccines – but the more mundane. Accident and emergency services, hospital care, key workers delivering food and taking away the rubbish – all the “ordinary” people have come into their own and had the vital work seen for what it is.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when Paul compares the Christian community to a body (1 Cor 12. 12-31a), with diverse parts, but a unity found in their cooperation and coordination. Part of what we have learnt in the last couple of years is the equal importance of all the units. No matter how brilliant the physician, the work of the nurse, PPE supply chain driver, and oxygen system engineer are all equally vital for survival.

The church always has difficulty coming to terms with this (as do many other organisations). The creation of heirarchy, so that the “most important” may take precedence and reward, is always tempting. Yet the more frail and hidden parts of the body all have their place, and need support.

The problem comes in determining what is part of the body, and what is alien – whether infection, splinter, or worse. The Christian community is not the whole of society, though it welcomes all who wish to join. But there are those who do not wish to join, and will not accept the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

We face a similar problem with Covid. How are we to deal with those who not only decline treatment for themselves, but deny any need, and endanger others by spreading infection and discouraging safety measures?

Clearly there is a need to be charitable and patient as far as possible. But the Christian community has always needed to define its boundaries – which means that some are beyond them, at least for the time. Heresy is dangerous (whether as wrong belief or wrong action) because it causes harm. The body is weakened, and needs to take measures to recover. Jesus would seem to agree (Mark 9:47 and parallels), but the need to be charitable, to be sure that we have understood the belief and intention of others, remains.

There is a fashionable emphasis on “inclusion”, the importance of which is well illustrated in this lesson. The need to welcome all who would come to faith, and encourage them in the process of responding to the gospel, is of first importance in the Christian “body”. (And even more so because we have often forgotten this in the recent past). Sadly though, some will not wish to accept the yoke of Christ, the obligations of a disciple, their place among others. None of us are free to demand our own terms of acceptance, or to imagine that we are to instruct, rather than obey, the one we call Lord. Inclusion is important, but in a fallen world, not all will be included, however well our love reflects a God who cares for all.

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.