Category Archives: Sunday Readings comment

Comments on readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (Bible Readings used by many Churches worldwide), as used in the Church in Wales.

This we know – how?

The last Sunday after Trinity is often kept as Bible Sunday, and we read Colossians 3:12-17, which has some important things to say. We begin by recognising that we are “God’s chosen people”. God is indeed kind: seeing the impossible state we were in our rebellion, the Son comes, not just to teach or demonstrate, but to die for our sin and open our way to life in heaven.

This we know from scripture.

Paul moves on to the consequences of the gospel. The life we are to live is a response to what God has done, and what God is, and is to be a life powered by the Holy Spirit. There are many ways this works out, and we are given an example in verse 13.

This we know from scripture.

There is to be love, and peace. Peace not from an easy life, but from confidence in God, a firm foundation, knowing where we shall end up (even if not the details of the journey to get there)

This we know from scripture.

The message of Christ is to live with us. Teaching about life, truth, and good news – still important for us, when many understand little or nothing of it. Once again, I am encouraging you to look at a passage, and see how it works for you and your life. Where do we get this from?

This we know from scripture.

Everything is to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. This is not a “formula”, but the source of power, and the spirit in which he lived. How are we to avoid the pitfalls, including sentimentality, mistakes, and the conflict of personalities?

This we know from scripture.

I hope this run through Paul’s instructions has been encouraging and helpful, but especially that they have taken you back to what he actually said. Scripture is not like the Mona Lisa – precious, but to be locked away, examined only by experts, and carefully guarded. Scripture is like a favourite tool, to be kept at hand and used often, valued for is effectiveness and practicality.

Tired?

October 18 is kept as the day to remember Luke, companion of Paul and writer of the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, so it is easy to see why we read 2 Timothy 4:5-17 – Luke is mentioned as being with Paul. As Paul writes to Timothy from prison, the first thing to say is that he is feeling sorry for himself (v6) – yet he wants his possessions brought to him. Verse 16 suggests he is alone, and perhaps feeling a bit vulnerable.

I hope it is not perverse to find that encouraging. It can be hard to be a Christian, and to go on in that way. We are called to receive God’s grace, to be re-made to advertise what he can do; but we are still – us. Sometimes the Christian life can be tough and depressing, and we need to think of being halfway to heaven as we struggle.

Perhaps that is how Timothy, as well as Paul, felt. Left to lead and sort out a Church, he is reminded “ proclaim the message” v2, even though there will be those who don’t want to hear the gospel of Jesus who died to set us free and leads us into holiness of life. There are times when the gospel becomes unfashionable, “uncool”, but it is always more than a personal preference, and the Christian must announce it by action and explanation. We could speculate about why people’s attention wanders off to other things – here it seems to be an ascetic way of life which is the alternative – but the point is to focus on God, what he has done and what he asks of us.

We, if we are those well established in church, have to remember the need to provide forms of service appropriate to outsiders and newcomers. How often the Sunday service is formed by the preferences of those who have been members for a long time, without a thought for those who might wander in out of curiosity – and find it all incomprehensible. We need to speak in services in ways that people who have never ever been to Church can hear, and understand as God’s word for them.

That’s not to say that everyone who hears will join up. I’ve already mentioned the way the gospel can become unfashionable. In the closing verses Paul speaks of opposition. Some have given up (v10), others have been longstanding opponents (v14). It’s not our responsibility to catalogue their mistakes, or act as policemen. Paul leaves that to God (as we should), but recognises the reality of a conflict situation (which hasn’t changed).

There are many encouraging voices in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 “ but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” is one – but be careful how you offer such verses to others. They’re not a “quick fix”! Christian life can be hard, as Jesus found and warned his disciples. There is hope, and support, and reason to go on – and none of that cancels the tiredness and difficulty of the hard times, or the need to be gentle with those wounded in Christian conflict.

Perhaps Paul shouldn’t have been feeling sorry for himself, but I hope we can be sympathetic, as well as recognising the need to proclaim the message, and recognise desertion and opposition as realities. Perhaps it will help us to pace our own faith activities and endure.

Fixed (idiot) smiles?

There’s a rather heavy feeling around at the moment. When Covid started, we thought a few weeks would see the worst of it done – but almost 6 months later, we are heading into worsening statistics. There are no promises of a quick letup. Beyond that, and little mentioned, is the economic recession that follows – tighten your belts. If your pension is safe, it is unlikely to rise much.

So when we read Philippians 4:1-9, there is a danger that the words fail to be understood. Worse, that we take them as irrelevant, even insulting. What does Paul mean, “Rejoice”? How are we supposed to, without being unsympathetic, even crass? – Well, let me tell you, because it is important.

What I said about the situation we’re in is true. There are lots of problems, and not a lot to be happy about. That was probably true of life in Philippi, too. Paul writes the letter while in chains in prison (1:13). He knows that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry” (1:15). He has had to ask the Philippians to remember the example of Christ – reading between the lines, we wonder if conceit or ambition (2:3) were a problem there. He has to remind them (2:14) “do everything without grumbling or arguing”, and to ask for help getting Euodia and Syntyche to make up their argument (4:2). Philippi is like any other church – less than perfect, with a number of “issues”. Yet Paul says Rejoice!

How?

Why?

The first clue is in the word. He says “Rejoice”, not “Be happy” or “have a party anyhow” (just as well, because lockdown restrictions, which you should be observing, don’t allow that). There’s a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a reaction to everything going well. Joy is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit, and we’ll talk a little more about what powers it, making it possible even in hard times.

The second clue is the next phrase. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. When our life is hard, God is still good, his love and faithfulness are dependable, and God is in control. That is something to rejoice in! It doesn’t mean our life will be easy, but it does bring a sense of confidence that whatever the conditions, whatever disasters threaten or come our way, God will not be overcome, God’s purposes will not be prevented. That does need an element of faith. I don’t know what will happen in the next year, 5 years. But I have faith that God can and will be in it all, working good for those who will face life with faith.

And we could say there is a 3rd clue in what follows:
“Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” It is because the Lord is near we don’t have to be angry, we don’t have to worry and irritate. “Do not be anxious about anything,” because, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, God knows, and with God you can find a way – no, better than that, the best way forward.

At every eucharist (the Communion Service, in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and often Methodist and Presbyterian services) the leader says “Lift up your hearts”. It is so old and widespread it has a Latin name “Sursum Corda”. The answer is not a muttered “We lift them to the Lord”, but an act of faith, a choice to see the world, not as it favours us, but as we look for God at work, and find joy in that.

We can’t all be happy all the time. We shan’t all be happy all of the time. Sometimes your brothers and sisters in Christ will need your sympathy and support. But we can be joyful, and respond to the call to rejoice. Even if it’s as hard as doing press-ups, I will lift my heart to God, to enjoy what God is like, and what God is doing, because it is good, and worth enjoying and celebrating.

Challenges.

One of the dangers of my Church is that it has such nice people in it! So easily it can become a club of well-meaning and like minded people. If we were all long sentence prisoners, slaves, or addicts our need would be clearer and less escapable. Paul would understand the danger. He has quite a record of achievement, – lays it out in Philippians 3:5,6. (Today we are reading Philippians 3:4-14). Yet he chooses to rely instead on Christ. There are several challenges here, but also much comfort.

First, a challenge to think about Christian achievement ( and to think about it more than secular achievement). We note people of significance – those with academic distinction, high office, or public achievement. We are not so good at celebrating those who persist faithfully in unpopular, underfunded or badly managed enterprise. The care worker who makes extra effort, and so on . . . Alas, we are less good at honouring those whose faith and Christian service are of lasting significance. I don’t mean we should resurrect the forgotten saints of past times, but that we need to think about our priorities – the more when Paul’s ambitions seem odd. The comfort here is for those who will never wear a medal on earth, but whose reliance on Christ earns them a heavenly record.

Secondly, a challenge about where our confidence should rest. Could we say with Paul we don’t care about our social status?

 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

Philippians 3:7

The comfort? It’s never too late to start. Disciples change! Part of this (or is it another point?) is the righteousness which comes from faith, rather than law (verse 9). The challenge is to rely on grace, forgiveness, Jesus, not on being “good” or respected. It is a good deal harder than you might think. The comfort? For those who find it hard, they can look to Jesus.

Is it time to stop yet? Perhaps, but a final challenge is keeping going to reach the goal verses 12-14. We haven’t arrived yet; we can’t give up and rely on our past. The comfort – yes, once again, it is never too late.

Paul was a great challenge, even insult, to his contemporaries. His transfer from Pharisee to Christian won him many enemies, much misunderstanding. We need to face up to his challenge – perhaps it is not his but Christ’s – to “conventional” religion. There is comfort, too, but only when we take seriously the call to “regard whatever gains we had as loss because of Christ”

Attitude, what attitude?

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

Philippians 2:5 GNB

– says Paul (in our reading of Philippians 2:1-13). This is our pattern, our example. This is the route that has been pioneered for us, and left for us to follow. Scholars suggest that Paul was adopting a hymn here. It makes no difference, for whatever follows “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” is going to be a hard act to follow.

There is also a question whether Paul was tactfully skating round failures in the leadership at Philippi. Were relationships there not so good? was there disunity, boasting, ambition and selfishness? The answer is not essential to our understanding. Churches are not perfect – we are a congregation of sinners. But we need to know where we are heading, and what we are supposed to imitate, how we are to work towards our goals. Again

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”

Not immune – but protected!

“I’ve been good, why is this happening to me?” Sadly this is a common wail of Churchgoers in trouble. Paul gives some answers in Philippians 1. (We are set to read Philippians 1:21-30, but it may be helpful to start a bit earlier – perhaps Philippians 1:12-30).

Paul is in prison (v13), yet his whole attitude is far beyond duty and courage! Even though some people are trying to make trouble for him (v17), he is happy. How does he manage this?

He has no illusions about the Christian life being a guarantee of no trouble, no hard times, no suffering. Quite the opposite, if his being in prison (not a pleasant experience) will help the gospel, then he is happy for that to happen. The experience is clearing up what is at stake, helping others to confront the challenge of the gospel – as persecution has often been a tool for strengthening the church – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (as is said in East Africa). Paul draws strength from realism: he knows the failings and weaknesses of other people, but also he knows the God who is in control of all. His trust is in God, and with that he can cope with people.

Life and death! Paul knows the possibilities of his situation, and has come to be able to say

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

It is a vital line for many others who face death, whether through disease (as we all do, at some time), or through physical danger. Sadly, we don’t now seem happy to speak positively about preparing for death, preferring to let it creep up on us unawares. Is a sudden heart attack the ideal end? No, for it allows no time to prepare, no repentance, no sorting of finances and relationships. Yes, to prepare for death needs the courage to face dying; and yes, it is a good thing to do – for our own sake as we face God, and for the sake of friends and family, as they adjust to a new situation.

Paul, guarded by armed soldiers, is in no position to avoid the realities, and he has worked through his thoughts and feelings to this wonderful and helpful statement v21. What do we rely on? If Christ, then he will see us through death. If something else, then we need to change – and that brings us to the third paragraph Philippians 1:27-30.

“the important thing is that your way of life should be as the gospel of Christ requires”

Philippians 1:27a

This is your safeguard, in all sorts of ways:

  • if you have enemies, who oppose and ridicule your faith, live it consistently, and they will have no ammunition. More, they will be given fair warning of their own danger.
  • if you are frightened of what may happen in the future, of the uncertainty that is always part of life (health, work, family …) then live as a Christian and you will develop the resources to cope with all these things, as well as to recognise that many will never come.
  • even should you ever be afraid of the “nasties” of the spiritual world, of black magic or vodoo or anything else you should not be involved with – this is your basic protection. Live as a Christian, for Christ does not allow his people to be seriously hurt by the enemy.

So I hope you see that Christians are not “immune”. All sorts of things can and do happen to them, but they are still safe with a God whose work is not stopped. They can face death with reasoned courage; they know that living as Christians is a preparation and protection which will get them through good times and bad.

Telling others what to do.

It is one of the most objectionable features of religion – people who want to tell you what to do! Too often it is not a helpful sharing of good ways, but a desire to control, manipulate, or play power games.

As Paul moves on in his letter to the Romans (now to Romans 14:1-12) he clearly has this problem in mind. There are many ways of living the Christian life. In Rome, there were clearly believers from Jewish backgrounds, some of whom wanted to be wary of “unclean” food, and to keep the feasts they had grown up with. Paul is happy, as long as they do not confuse their customs with what is necessary for salvation. But believers of all traditions are to accept one another without hostile comment, as long as they share in the basic facts of faith. Of course, there is always a debate about what is basic, about what you “have to do”, but Paul argues against extending the basics to “our way”, whatever that may be.

I doubt there are many congregations today where the issue is between those of Jewish and Gentile background, but the issues remain. Food has become an ethical issue more prominently as ecological concerns have suggested the earth cannot support a Western style, meat focused, diet for all. Health experts have also ruled against much red meat. So some of us, if not becoming vegetarian, have added more meat-free meals to our diet. It is an interesting point to debate, but it is not a fundamental point of faith.

Anglicans (like me) tend to find the cycle of the “Church year”, looking at different parts of the faith at different seasons, a helpful teaching aid. Autumn brings Harvest, a thanksgiving reminding us of creation (and our need to care for it!). Kingdom reminds us of God’s rule, and Advent of our readiness for God’s Coming. Christmas (disentangling ourselves from the commercial version) speaks of God among us, and Epiphany of how that became known. There is time in Lent to consider the cost, of our salvation and of following a crucified Saviour. Easter takes us to the resurrection, and then on to ascension, Trinity, and the consequences all this has for our life routines and habits. Useful? Arguably. Necessary? Not at all. Many Christians will never keep that pattern, or those feasts. If they are “not like us” that does not affect their faith. In fact, it is just as well there are many Christians “not like us”, for it makes it easier to see what really is important!

We remind ourselves that the person to tell what to do – is ourselves. I am the only person I am meant to control, and as yet I have not worked that out fully. I am happy to try and encourage others, even to try and explain what I know of faith and Christian life, but I need to restrain the urge to tell others what to do. That is God’s job, and God is better at it than I am.

Debt

Debt cancellation is a popular theme among those concerned with world development. How can struggling nations repay money which has long since been mis-spent or disappeared into corrupt hands, when they need to help their people to a better life? It is not a simple issue, but one example of how debt can throw a long shadow over life.

Paul tells Christians (we are reading Romans 13:8-14)

 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another

Romans 13:8a

and we might wonder how that works out in practice.

Jesus (Mark 12:31) summarised the law as loving the one God, and your neighbour as yourself. It brought together two vital strands. The love of God is a response to the love God first shows us, accepting his gift and putting it into use, our motivation for new life. But our love of those around us is a reality check. If we really love God, then it will show in our behaviour, even to the difficult or demanding. After all, God loved us when we were just like that!

But how are we to set about cancelling debts? Doesn’t society depend on favours owed and favours returned? Isn’t our social life founded on remembering who you owe? Perhaps some people do give the impression of a frantic counting and reckoning of who is owed what. But there is an alternative. The Lord’s Prayer taught us “Forgive us . . as we forgive”; – not a careful accounting, but a generosity which reflects the generosity of God’s treatment of us. I think what Paul is recommending is that generosity in our relations with our neighbours.

It may be in terms of money, including making sure that we repay anything borrowed promptly and willingly, but it is really about a wider generosity of spirit. Sometimes money is not the issue. Generosity may offer time and a listening ear (rather than advice!). It may find sympathy rather than blame. It will control irritation, contempt, and cynicism.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone is wise or does the right thing. But if there are words of guidance or correction, they will be spoken gently, and by the right person. And those words will only be heard after any personal anger or hurt have been dealt with, so that they are spoken with a positive slant, and with love.

Easy? Like so many Christian things, it is not complicated, just hard to do. But this is a response to a God who deals lovingly with me, so there is a reminder of what is possible!

Be Reasonable -?

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”. That’s a nice sentiment; I can’t see anyone taking offence; it should be possible to weave a pleasant and encouraging sermon around those words. If only Paul stopped there, and we didn’t read on in Rom 12! – But of course he did write on, and we need to read the rest of Romans 12:9-21. As you do so, there are several possible reactions.

  • one is dismay, and then perhaps despair. It is one thing to celebrate love, but being patient in suffering (v12) is asking a bit, blessing those who persecute you (v14) is over the top, and overcoming evil with good (v21) is beyond.
  • another way of taking it would be to say, “Very nice, that’s the ideal, what’s the pass mark?” – in other words not to take it too seriously. Something nice to say, but don’t expect it to happen!
  • perhaps we should go a third way, taking these words very seriously:

This will highlight two very different understandings of what life might be about. Some will see Church as something they enjoy doing, and a chance to be reminded to do good. Others will see Church as a process of being transformed. On the first view, Paul’s words from Romans 12 are either a heavy burden, or something not to be taken too seriously. Only when you see Church – worship and study and service and fellowship – the whole – as part of a process in which God the Holy Spirit transforms us, can these words of Paul be a part of the good news. Then, far from bringing ever greater demands of our effort and performance, we have laid out a journey of wonder and delight.

Look at it this way with me for a minute.

Love must be completely sincere. Hate what is evil, hold on to what is good. 10 Love one another warmly as Christians, and be eager to show respect for one another.

Romans 12:9-10

This is what the early Christians were known for – and what we have not always managed to continue and repeat.

11 Work hard and do not be lazy. Serve the Lord with a heart full of devotion.

Romans 12:11

It needs zeal. Not to do the work, but to be an active partner, allowing it to happen, avoiding distractions, taking a keen interest in what the Holy Spirit is prompting us to do next.

12 Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times. 13 Share your belongings with your needy fellow Christians, and open your homes to strangers. 14 Ask God to bless those who persecute you—yes, ask him to bless, not to curse. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, weep with those who weep. 16 Have the same concern for everyone. Do not be proud, but accept humble duties.[a] Do not think of yourselves as wise.

Romans 12:12-16

This now begins to make sense as what God would do, and will do in us if he is allowed to take charge.

17 If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. 18 Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody. 19 Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God’s anger do it. For the scripture says, “I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, as the scripture says: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink; for by doing this you will make them burn with shame.”

Romans 12:17-20

Yes, of course this is demanding. But if we get into the habit of doing what the Holy Spirit suggests, we will be less concerned to defend ourselves. My feelings, my ego, my reputation – become less important as confidence in God, and investment in his Kingdom, grows.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

Yes, it was the point of the Cross, and while we can never repeat that sacrifice, we can allow the principle to be applied in us, and we can share the victory. I suggest to you that Paul, and the Holy Spirit inspiring him, intended these words to be taken seriously, as a description of a life in which control is given to God the Holy Spirit. It is not a demand for ever greater self-control, but a progression as we learn more of the Christian life, and grow in confidence and practice.

Let love be genuine

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:9, 21

Therefore . .

“Therefore . .” at the beginning of chapter 12 of Romans (we read Romans 12:1-8), Paul has completed his explanation of Christian “theory”. He will now turn to practical Christian living. But he makes it very clear that this is not detachable from what goes before. You can’t skip the first bit, because without it, this doesn’t make sense. It won’t even work.

Why is that? Surely Christianity is a very practical way of living? Yes, but it depends on God, faith, and grace. Without these, it fails. If you ask a question such as “What do I have to give God to get the thing I want?” there is no sensible answer. God doesn’t bargain. God gives generously, and includes us (if we are willing) in working for love, peace, justice . . But the good things you get are not your decision.

So – the section on practical Christian living starts with a call to be transformed. Yes, by all means be honest with God and express your hopes, desires and fears. But let the Holy Spirit get to work on you. Allow yourself to be changed, so that, gradually, you see more of God’s perspective on any situation. Don’t let yourself be bullied or manipulated into what is fashionable, or clever, or . . But look for what is good and sustainable. I don’t mean boring, or old-fashioned. There is plenty in God’s work that is exciting, creative, beautiful.

As your mind is re-shaped, (and yes, no matter how good your upbringing, we all need re-shaped minds!), look further. What gifts has God given you? There are lots of different ones, nobody has them all, but equally no Christian is left without a gift. What’s yours? Now, where does it fit in the Christian body? Paul gives a list, but there are other lists in other New Testament letters, and the wording varies, so there seems to be quite a variety. He wants to make the point that these gifts are not for “showing off”, as if believers were meant to be in competition for the “best” places. Quite the opposite, gifts are to be used for the benefit of the whole body – you use yours to help others, and need their gifts for the body to work as it should.

You can’t live as a Christian without being a Christian – because it only works if powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. Good intentions, discipline, duty – none are enough without the Spirit. That’s why the first steps involve a fundamental change of attitude, and being part of a co-operative, not competitive, group. And that is only the start!