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.

Putting him in his place

Does toleration demand religious pluralism? Our society is full of different belief systems – and increasingly so as they mix and mingle. The situation was much the same in Colossae, a small town in Asia Minor / Turkey. There was a church founded by Epaphras, one of Paul’s converts. The town was founded on a trade in purple dyed wool (purple from cyclamen). But the Church was troubled by false teaching, a mixed and complicated drawing from many sources – Christian, Jewish, Greek mystery cults . . .In fact, many similarities with twenty first century society.

Paul writes to the Church, and quickly speaks of Jesus. We face a temptation to avoid him, to talk instead about our tradition, how we like to do things. Shouldn’t we just take Jesus as one teacher among many ? – what about Muslim view of Jesus, about the Mormons Joseph Smith, and the Bahai’s Bahaullah. You can get lost here – but not with Paul.

Paul is going to spell out the importance of Jesus (we are reading from Colossians 1:11-20) :

[God] “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “

Colossians 1:13

This is the story of conversion– an individual coming to faith, not just to personal satisfaction and clarity, but life!

Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God. is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[d] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[e] him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place. Jesus first, superior to all he created (including many of these strange spiritual things we don’t know much about. Christianity is not committed to saying there are no other spiritual powers or forces – but asserts the greatest of all). You can’t say that, and then follow it with “Jesus is one among many teachers and holy men” or “Jesus is another prophet”. It doesn’t make sense – you must choose one or other. Jesus is the head of his body, the church; he is the source of the body’s life. He is the first-born Son, who was raised from death, in order that he alone might have the first place in all things.

“For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God.

Colossians 1:19,20

It was through the Son, then, that God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. Jesus is not just part or the church, or founder of the church – he is head, and life-source, and living ruler. Jesus is the one who brings us back to God – Christ is King because of the Cross, and that by the plan and decision of God. Paul will not allow Jesus’ role to be diminished, his place as head and ruler of the Church to be challenged.

Here we are in the twenty first century. Yes, we have many faiths, traditions and practices, and our Christian faith leads us to respect the freedom of people to believe, and even get faith wrong. But, is there a greater prophet? Someone more modern who will put Jesus in his lower place? Would you seriously think of replacing the creator of the universe, who played the key and costly role in setting us free? That would indeed be madness.

Proper Waiting

Waiting comes in different forms. We wait for good news, or for bad news, hoping it won’t come but half expecting it will. All waiting can do strange things to the way we live:

  • ordinary things sometimes lose importance
  • or some things get more important
  • we may do “displacement activity”, busy with irrelevant things
  • we may do nothing – and just “freeze”

When Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, he reminds the Christians in Thessalonica that he had told them of Jesus return as King. It was, and is, an important part of faith. It should be reflected in a proper way of life, not fully absorbed in what is now, and the way people do things now. We sometimes talk about a pilgrimage, us on a journey, with the idea of “passing through”. But we easily forget that really we’re waiting for someone else, and we can’t hurry the journey along.

Of course, someone always gets the wrong idea. Some Thessalonians heard Paul, and gave up work. What was the point if Jesus was coming back? So not only did they sponge on other people for food and necessities, in their idleness they started gossiping, giving the whole community a bad reputation. Paul is not having that. He had worked – not that he might not have claimed support, but he worked to give them an example.

This is not suggesting that the unemployed should starve! It is a reminder that Christians should be usefully occupied. All Christians. If you have to work for a living, good. Do it well, and make the most of those contacts you make to witness to your faith in Jesus. Not easy? Try to find help, and learn ways to do it properly – without bullying. Students, don’t waste that course! You have a responsibility there. If you don’t have to work for a living, or can’t get a job at the moment, good. Give thanks for your freedom, but don’t imagine you needn’t account for your use of time and energy! There is a lot to be done, in family & community.

Everybody, avoid gossip, and idle chatter which leads to general (and proper) criticism. There is a story (was it of John Wesley?), who was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was coming back tomorrow. He took out his diary, checked his engagements, and said yes, that was what he’d do. We are all meant to live, to be ready for Jesus to come, but also to carry on as long as necessary. It’s all part of our understanding of God’s Kingdom:

  • on the one hand Jesus will come back, so don’t get too used to the way things are; don’t imagine that what everybody else does must be right
  • but don’t get so focussed on the future that you don’t do a good job of work (paid or voluntary!), or forget to help people now

Christian faith is never to be an excuse for not doing what needs to be done on earth now. But we always live knowing that what is on earth now is not as important as what will be at the end.

Panic or Potter?

Most of us are less kind when we are being threatened, and less generous if we’ve had a shock or been unsettled. No wonder, then, that Paul wants to settle and reassure his friends in Thessalonica who have been shocked and disturbed by conflicting teaching about the end of the world.

As we read 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 and 13-17, we see Paul’s balance. He has told these Christians to expect Jesus return, with power and judgement, bringing vindication for the faithful. It is not surprising that they are disturbed by reports that Jesus has already returned – while they are still struggling with persecution and difficulty.

On the one hand, Paul reassures them that Jesus has not yet returned. That is still (for them, and for us) in the future, and they should take heart and be encouraged. It is a difficult time, but that is to be expected.

On the other, Paul urges this church to stand firm. They are to get on with Christian life, showing and sharing the glory of the risen Lord as they go about their work. God’s grace will give them all they need, and they are secure in what he has promised.

It is interesting to ask whether your Church over or under emphasises teaching about the end of the world. There is much which will be clear only when it happens, but the promise of the full realisation of God’s just and gentle rule is something to look forward to. It encourages us as we get on with the sometimes difficult reality of Christian living.

[I found Mariam Kamell’s comments on the Working Preacher website very helpful, and think you might too.]

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.

Scripture, on and offline

Friday was wet and windy, and I stopped my car to collect a food waste bin from the middle of the road. It was clearly an odd thing to do in the rain! Very clearly – I got “looks”. People tend to assume that pleasing yourself – doing what you want to – is either a natural right, or at least something given the more senior members of a group, or perhaps those who have money to spend. But that’s a mistake!

The Christian faith teaches us that the strong – so especially those older members of the congregation, who have practised for longer – are NOT to please themselves, but to help others to build up their faith and strength. This may be less of a shock to parents and grandparents.

Look at today’s lesson Romans 15:1-6. Paul has urged the congregation not to split over minor issues – eating meat (often sacrificed in pagan temples), drinking wine, or arguing over whether or not to observe particular Jewish festivals (in a mixed Jewish-Gentile congregation). Now he says:

“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

Romans 15:1-3

Basic Christian gospel. Jesus offers us love and forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because of his love and God’s plan. We are invited to respond, learning the same love, and finding the same HS strength.

How do we know about this?

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

Yes, on Bible Sunday we are sent back to the Bible. I know some of you are involved with Open the Book, and know how children enjoy and benefit from the stories. I know some of you will be involved in study groups, or follow Bible notes individually. I wonder if you have woken up to mobile phones?

  • Mine has a Bible downloaded (free!) with a daily verse
  • it also has Scripture Union Daily Bread notes
  • Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline for each day with the right readings, canticles, and a reminder of feast days + commemorations
  • and of course there are many gospel films on You Tube (+ a lot of rubbish)

The point of all this? Not getting a “qualification”. Paul lays it out clearly:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Romans 15:5-7

The Christian life is tough. We are to have the attitude of Jesus, our Lord, and to draw strength from the same Holy Spirit. It won’t always be appreciated. Often it won’t even be understood – look, or rather read, what happened to him. But it is lifegiving, for us and for others. Our worship and thanksgiving are not some cold duty, but the gateway to a new and wonderful life. Together, will all our failings, we write a new chapter of God’s rescue of his people and his rebuilding of broken humanity. It’s worth being a part of.

Truth

The Bible is old. It comes from a very different time and culture, and needs translating from dead languages. Why bother? You will not expect me either to apologise for using the Bible, or for finding it important. But “Why bother?” is a significant question, and I’ll take just one of many possible answers.

Paul tells Timothy (I’m reading 2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5) it is useful for teaching the truth. Truth – an important thing. Without it, we get lost, in “fake news”, opinion, misinformation, propaganda, “spin”. The first thing to do before making any plans is to check the facts. It doesn’t matter if you are planning a bus trip to town or a lifetime career. You need to know the possibilities – bus times, educational requirements . . The more you think about it, the more important truth becomes:

  • Truth is the way things are and while you can live in a dream or a fantasy, it doesn’t work for long, and you can come down with a bump.
  • Truth is reality and we all learn about the realities – financial realities, medical realities, educational realities . .
  • Truth is a foundation. Actually, the only foundation with any reliability. You can build on truth – a career, a relationship, a plan of where to go from here . .

Truth is less common than it used to be. There used to be a standard, which required truth, for example in courts, and in public life. Now, that is more “negotiable”. It should make Christians more visible. The Bible tells us about God, and it may be memories of bad school lessons that make us forget one of the best things about God is Truth. God doesn’t do lies, not even half lies; he’s as straight as you can get. He so much “tells it as it is”, that he is not only true, but Truth – he defines the word. (Remember Jesus, “I am Way, Truth and Life” John 14:6 ?). Of course, this isn’t “true” just because somebody says so. You need to decide this for yourself, in the most careful and reliable way you can – but don’t delay!

And when you find out for yourself, lets celebrate the God of the Bible, with a determination to get to know him better, understanding that truth is a firm basis for:

  • a life
  • a career
  • a relationship
  • and anything else you had in mind (anything good, that is!)

To simplify . .

How complicated does it have to be? In a world where so much is complicated – technology, getting help, simply handling the everyday things we use – do the big questions have to be endlessly complicated as well? What about the decisions? Perhaps not. Paul writes (in today’s reading, 2 Timothy 2:8-15)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

a simple summary – and a good one. Paul is chained as a prisoner, but seems to think imprisonment worthwhile, in the hope that his efforts and endurance will help others to find salvation – “safety” – in the same way, through Jesus. His concern with outsiders comes from Jesus, and is a reminder for us. He doesn’t tell us where “the saying” comes from – a hymn, a bit of worship text, a poem?, but is underlines his point:
Jesus is our focus, a leader reliable enough to follow through death to life beyond. (You have to be very sure of a leader to go on that campaign with him!) He reminds us of the importance of enduring, of keeping going – for it is those who continue their loyalty to him who will gain the benefit.

But Jesus is not like us in being possibly unfaithful. He keeps faith, whatever we do, and that is part of the difference. Jesus is remembered as the one who was raised from the dead – the great evidence of God’s approval of the man and his message. His pioneering of that journey is vital.
Jesus is also a descendant of David – not just the Messiah (“Great David’s greater Son”, to quote a hymn of ours), but one who, coming in that tradition, fulfills and advances it.

So is it all that simple? “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel” 2 Tim 2:8. Yes, and no. Yes, that is a good summary, and it does tell us where we should be focussing and who we should be following. No, because it is a summary, and to understand the summary you need to read the whole argument.

Paul goes on to that in verse 14 “avoid wrangling over words”. There are 2 sorts of discussion:

  • one is a point scoring contest, an attempt to win. It can go on for a long time as people twist words, facts, anything
  • another involves careful listening, building with others a deeper and better picture of an important reality.

Paul knows only too well how pointless the first is. Words are terribly inexact things, but they are the best means of communication we usually have. There is a danger in using them – of confusion, of point-scoring competition, of giving the wrong picture, an inaccurate picture, a picture that looks OK to me but has a totally different meaning for the other person.

You see the dilemma, and its solution. We try to work out our faith, to understand at the deepest level we are capable of. But when we are in danger of getting too clever, or too totally confused/bemused

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

That instruction can be given without qualification

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

Recipe for action

Imagine what it would be like if every Christian was confident in their faith. I mean confident, not bumptious or aggressive – indeed confidence would let them listen to other views and other ways calmly. What sort of a church would result from people who took seriously 2 Timothy 1:1-14, starting with verse 7? Let’s think about it.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young and possibly rather diffident leader in the church. He gives thanks for his faith, and v 6,7

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

God’s Spirit fills us with power. Not like Superman – or the Amazing Hulk. Not power for display, but to get things done. Paul talks about witnessing, about not being ashamed of Jesus. That’s an important part of Christian confidence. “I may not have got all the answers, and I’m not holding myself up as perfect, but I can recommend a Saviour.” It takes power to make that recommendation graciously, whether it means speaking up in an awkward silence, or being consistent about living differently to others.

But it’s not just power, love is needed. What has love to do with confidence?

God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

God’s love is what has saved us. A love for the unlovely. A reason to know that we are valued, that we have a place – and not because we pretend to be something we are not, but because God makes us something we are not. If the Spirit fills us with love, the competition to be more important, more successful, loses its point. We can love and accept others because we are loved and accepted.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. s not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.”

Self control? Paul was no control freak. He travelled the Mediterranean, and there were no timetables (and no travel insurance). Paul’s life was flexible, but there was a discipline there to get things done. He said that it was not what he achieved, but what God did in and through him, and together they worked well.

Self-control is no easier to find than power or love, but we are told that these are things the Holy Spirit gives and develops as we live as Christians. It’s not a passing or accidental reference in verse 7, because verse 14 underlines it:

14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

That needs no explanation. We need confident Christians, filled by the Holy Spirit with power, love and self-control. Don’t just think about it; do it!

Angels

September 29th is the feast of Michael and all Angels – a day to look into things beyond our experience and often understanding. That in itself is no bad thing! The idea that we know it all, or even all that matters (to us), is dangerous as well as arrogant.

The Bible does not tell us a great deal about angels. Michael appears in Daniel, Jude and Revelation as warrior. Gabriel, perhaps better known from the Christmas story, is also in Daniel. (The Apocrypha adds Raphael, with a major part in the book of Tobit, and Uriel in 2 Esdras). There are other un-named angels in the gospel story, visiting the shepherds near Bethlehem, and with Jesus in the wilderness and later in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus mentions them many times – but never to say much directly about them. He assumes their presence in Heaven.

Perhaps that is what we need to know. Angels are largely beyond our experience and understanding. They remind us that there is a great deal we do not even begin to understand. But God is in charge, God the One, who is also Father, Son and Spirit.

That brings us to the letter to Hebrews, and the reading for Michael and all Angels – Hebrews 1:5-14. Hebrews is written to a community tempted to leave their new Christian faith and default to their Jewish roots. The comment on angels in chapter 1 speaks of them as “ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation”. It insists, with Old Testament quotations, that even these glorious creatures are far inferior to Jesus, who alone holds the greatest power.

Does that leave us humbled, by what we do not know? Does it perhaps remind us of the greatness of God’s Son, who exceeds in importance spiritual powers not subject to our limitations? Are we encouraged by the thought of forces beyond our vision fighting evil ? Or perhaps we simply wonder if this might be the beginning of an answer to the question, “What if we are not the only form of intelligence in the Universe?”. We can be thankful for Michael and all Angels, while we still admit the very limited understanding we have of angels and their doings.

Meta What?

What do you know about Post-Modernism? If your answer is nothing, or even not much, you are wrong. You may not know the name, but you know the attitudes, and their effects. Post-Modernism is the view that says everyone can have their own life, even their own truth. It is the force behind the demand for choice, and the philosophy behind the assertion that everything is relative. It claims that – in the jargon – there is no Meta-narrative. That is, there is no overall meaning; it is no use asking why things are as they are or why the happen as they do – they just are, and you make your own meaning.

This is presented as something new, but many parts of it have been around many times before. Remember Paul, visiting Athens in the first century, and finding all sorts of temples and altars (“take your pick”); or remember Jonah, when on the ship in the storm, and the captain wakes him up (Jonah 1:6) to pray to his god, in case that works better than any of the other “gods” the crew and other passengers pray to for relief from the dangerous storm.

You may realise that I am talking about 1Timothy 2. (1 Timothy 2:1-7 is the reading for Proper 20c, or this year the 14th Sunday after Trinity) Christians have a distinctive attitude. We respect other people and beliefs – not because all beliefs are equal, nor out of fear or inability to do anything about it. We respect all people because God made them, loves them, and wants them to be saved. We respect their beliefs, because God does not force anyone in this life, so we also must allow them freedom within the limits of harm to others.

Now look at 1 Timothy 2. Prayer is to be offered for everyone! Can’t we just be concerned with ourselves, or those like us? No. We serve a God who cares for all, and our care must reflect his. We pray for those in authority, depending on them, but more. Verse 5:

“there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

What this is saying, as a summary of the Christian gospel, is that there is a Meta-narrative – one overall purpose. God, by definition, is one. He is the supreme being. Yes, our world has lost sight of him, and given up trying to make sense of everything. In some ways Christians haven’t helped – they have sometimes contributed to oppression, sometimes just let it happen. Some of their explanations have not honoured God, but made him anything but loving and just. We live with the results, in a curious mixture.

Our faith says, v5: “there is one God;
    there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
    who gave himself a ransom for all”

Our world says there is no right way, do your own thing. I suggest we do as we are told (but as we are told by a God who is just, and loving, and understands what we never will on earth). What are we to do? Live as God asks, praying for all around us, making clear that our choice is for Jesus, and there is both the possibility and welcome for others to do so too.