Category Archives: Year A

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Threat – and opportunity

The world seems very different from just a couple of weeks ago. The threat of a virus – covid-19 – has changed our lives, causing strain and fear. Can Paul’s words from his letter to Ephesus offer any help? (We read Ephesians 5:8-14)

Christians are just like everyone else in having to respond to the situation, take instructions, and know that many things are changing, and some will never be the same. Paul’s challenge would seem to be that we do this with love, deliberately imitating God.

Yes there is evil in some of what is happening. Fear, insecurity, we could make quite a long list. These things can divide people and strain relationships. Can there be anything good in all this?

“Live as children of light” we are told. No secrets, no selfish advantage, but an open attempt to live generously and well. What does that mean, when we cannot go and meet people, join for worship, offer help? Perhaps it is a helpful challenge. It makes us think again about how we live our faith.

We cannot gather to worship, but we can join in broadcast services, or listen to our leaders and teachers via the internet. We cannot go and see people, but we can be in touch by phone, e-mail, messaging. We have more time spare that we are used to – and can use it well, or badly.

What it will mean to live in the light as Christian disciples? That will vary in detail from person to person. But for all it will be a life sharing with others, probably in new ways, which need exploring. We may self-isolate to avoid the bug, and the problem of others catching it from us, or perhaps having to care for us – but that is physical, not emotional. Don’t lower the portcullis and prepare to resist any who come near!

When we get back to something more like normal, what will the churches have learnt? Will they try for “business as usual”, or will they be glad of having tried new ways of supporting one another, new friends made, new skills learnt? It’s not that the faith has changed, but the times mean that the practice of faith has to adapt. Is the understanding we have gained so far equal to changing, and meeting a new world with the light of Christ?

“No longer for ourselves alone”

Paul wrote a letter to a church he had never visited – and, usefully for us, it sets out the message he preached. That message centres on Jesus, and on the good news that God has acted to rescue humans unable to save themselves. Let me take you through a little of what he says before today’s epistle. Paul claims that at least some of God’s character is clear in creation – but that there has been a general rebellion against God and living his way, and as a result there is guilt. The trouble is, it is not just “them”, it affects “us” too. Those who knew the Old Testament Law – 10 commandments and more – simply knew their failure in more detail. By Romans 3:10 he can say “No one is acceptable to God”, – and that is serious .

So what’s the answer? Clearly not a set of rules, not a greater effort to be perfect. The good news is Jesus, who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sin. The acceptance we cannot earn we can accept as a gift, received by faith. Paul then goes on in chapter 4 to show how this worked out in Abraham. It was, he insists, Abraham’s faith, and not his achievements, that made him God’s friend and won his place in Jewish and Christian history.

So we come to chapter 5, and today’s epistle (we read Romans 5:1-11 ). Faith in Jesus, trust in his sacrifice for us, bring us reconciliation to God. It doesn’t mean we shall have an easy life – in fact it can bring persecution and suffering – but even then we shall have hope. When we think that Jesus died for those who were his enemies, we see something of God’s love.

This is not widely understood in our culture (perhaps not in any culture). Many people seem to think “Don’t worry about sin, it doesn’t matter, God won’t make a fuss!” But it does matter, and it separates us from a just and holy God. The answer is not forgetfulness, nor greater effort to be perfect – the answer is the sacrifice of Jesus, a gift we accept by faith. God does for us what we cannot do.

So what does a Christian life look like in these terms? Let me pass on a story:

Disillusioned with the view of God she had been taught, Karema began searching for spiritual answers as a young graduate. The wonder of God humbling himself and coming into the world as a man, sharing our experiences and pain, was crucial in Karema’s journey of accepting Christ as her Saviour. 

When her community learned of her belief in Christ, Karema realised she was in danger and fled her home country. She is now ministering to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, meeting practical needs and teaching the Bible to those hungry for spiritual truth, as she was once herself. 

Karema shared her story. She says, “They asked ‘Why are you so kind to us, what is behind this?’ so we explained how Jesus had put in our hearts to go and help the strangers.”

That sort of story is challenging to us, but I think it rightly understands the gospel. In the Thanksgiving prayer at the eucharist (Church in Wales, Lent) we say: “By Jesus’ grace, we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” It was living “no longer for herself alone” that raised the questions Karema answered with the story of Jesus.

Take the tablets?

What brings us into relationship with God? How do we connect, and eventually get to heaven? There have been, and still are, a great many answers. Some refuse to believe it is possible – yet the interest in the “spiritual” continues. Some rely on drugs or mind-altering techniques – but that lacks reality, and permanence (though the damage can be lasting!). Some insist that matters of the spirit mean getting away from the material, by changing your view of reality through fasting, meditation, chanting etc . .

The most common alternative to Christianity is the idea that if you are good, you will be rewarded, and if good enough, you will make the grade and “pass”. In some ways, this was the Jewish position. The Law told them what was required, so they studied, set up safeguards against breaking it, and thought themselves separate and superior. Wrong, says Paul. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). Good is good, but you will never be good enough for God. No. Christians come to God as never good enough, but trusting – and that trust or faith is the key to finding God.

What do they trust in? Not themselves, their effort or goodness, but God. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. But does it matter now? or is it of purely historical and specialist interest?

In fact, arguments about the Law are still current and important, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). As chapter 4 starts, he turns to Abraham, who believed God. Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham, childless, believed God when promised that he would have as many descendants as there were stars in the night sky – and Paul makes the point that this is before the giving of the Law at Sinai, and before the rite of circumcision.

“And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Genesis 15:6

Abraham didn’t win God’s reward by outstanding action, heroism, or moral excellence. It was his trust, and God’s goodness, that brought them together and gave him hope. Unlikely though it may have seemed that an old couple could have a child, he thought the God who said it reliable, and believed.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. What causes division in the twenty-first century is that faith, rather than achievement, knowledge or experience is the key. That makes all believers equal – equal in finding God through faith, equal in failure to deserve or earn or require his recognition.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Fired up?

What motivates you? gets you out of bed on a cold morning? The fear that somebody will come and get you? Habit and the need to get to work and pay the bills? It works better if there is something positive to look forward to, something good which can be enjoyed and shared.

Peter is looking forward to Christ’s return, (we read 2 Peter 1:16-21 ) and arguing against those who doubt it. You may remember how he started with Jesus – found by his brother, called from his fishing. It started as some sort of interest, helped by a group who lived together and became friends. But that wasn’t enough.

The key was Jesus. Even then, it was not a striking personality, nor a wonderful teaching or programme. What he talks about is the greatness he saw, especially when Jesus was Transfigured. That was quite an experience – but Peter’s faith wasn’t built on an “experience”. It was a time when everything came together, and he “saw” it, and understood – and that would motivate him through dark and difficult times.

What did he see? A glimpse of reality. A reality in which God is involved with his creation, and so everything is seen in a new light. A glimpse of holiness, of Jesus talking with 2 great leaders for God about what was truly important, about something which would have significance for ever. A glimpse of heavenly beings, in communication which had understanding and purpose.

Peter sees, and his confidence grows in the one identified as God’s Son, and he moves on. He draws attention to the message of the prophets verse 19, and the need to be guided by the Holy Spirit verse 21.

We read this passage before Lent, to remind us that it is not just a time to give up some trivial indulgence, and enjoy being miserable. It is time to think about our motivation, what feeds it and what obstructs it. Some motivations in Christian life just don’t work – and we see people give up.

Against that we set, not some subjective experience, but the greatness and glory of God revealed in Jesus. We may come to understand at different times, but we also need to know about

  • the reality
  • the holiness
  • and the communication

so that we set out on our journey to heaven with determination, and energy, and skill.

It may be that you know how to sort out your motivation; or perhaps you just need to listen to people like Peter, writing to convince you.

What about Creation?

Creation is wonderful! If you doubt it, think how many different people would be fascinated, within their speciality:

  • Engineers of all sorts are fascinated by the order, and interlocking systems balancing
  • Anthropologists and Zoologists can spend lifetimes studying the diversity and intricacy of what they discover – knowing there is much more
  • Astronomers get excited by things I don’t understand at all!
  • Authors are amazed by the varieties of human experience, or travel possibilities.
  • Artists look at landscapes, from postcard sunsets to subtle delights

I try to take photographs, and have a continuing series of clouds. Sometimes with skyline, often without. There is colour, shape, contrast, mystery, power . . all sorts of things, often in great beauty.

Yes, creation is wonderful but – read Romans 8:18-25 as we did, and we need to look forward. We know there are various things wrong. Climate Change has been highlighted as a concern for us all. But there are other problems: trade imbalances impoverishing the weak; technological changes affecting cultures. . Paul is not very specific, but seems to say that creation groans, and that humans, including Christians, also experience less than the ideal. This isn’t it – we haven’t arrived.

These and other problems don’t mean creation is wholly spoiled, but neither is it as it should be. So creation groans – verse 22. One commentator says “Cosmic pessimism was rampant in the first century; most people believed that decay and Fate reigned supreme.” I’m not sure of the most popular outlook today, but Paul adds that even Christians who have been given the Holy Spirit share this groaning, looking for what they do not yet have or experience. What is that? Freedom from the present problems – so heaven, or perhaps the full experience of the Kingdom of God. It has started, but we still wait for its full realisation. We can’t make the Kingdom of God happen. It needs God, and his timing. So we wait, perhaps suffer, and hope.

But do we do that idly? No, at least I hope not.

  • We relish creation, enjoying it according to our gifts (taking pictures, easing relationships under strain, gardening) – and hope that helps others as well as us enjoy and glimpse the Creator.
  • We learn to give thanks, recognising the Creator, and our bounty.
  • We look forward. We talk about what we have now and what we are waiting for, keeping up our expectation with encouragement.
  • Where possible, we put things right. Fair Trade matters; it won’t solve all the problems of the world, but it will help, and fix some. Climate change matters, and yes, its a big issue – but find out what you can do, and do it.

Creation is wonderful; and we are waiting for our Creator God to make it as it is really supposed to be. In the meantime, we can still see some of his character in the creation, and we have things to hope for, and things to do.

What’s behind it?

Do you sometimes wonder why things succeed? Is it just clever presentation, a good advertising agency, or a bit of manipulation? Sometimes we look back at the fashions of a few years ago – the popular ideas and activities as well as clothes – and wonder why we ever thought them worth bothering with. Yet some things do last, and prove their worth.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (we read 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 this week) about what happened when he first came to them and established the group of Christian believers. He says that they weren’t persuaded by a clever speaker, nor by polished theory and philosophy. Yet the Church was established there, and fought through many difficulties, as it has done all over the world. Paul’s claim is that, far from depending on himself, he spoke of Jesus and his death. The force was God’s Spirit, which made, and maintained, the difference.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,  so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5

There is a power behind Christian living, but if it is real it is not dependent on a dominant personality, or a clever presentation. The power has to be the power of God to heal and transform broken lives, and to motivate loving service. In a similar way, the wisdom Paul speaks of is not about getting rich, making a reputation, or even getting your own way. It is in gaining some understanding of a God who loves his people, who chooses the way of the Cross, and works in lives that are often seen as unimportant.

But is it real? The Christian faith continues to grow and transform people, even when it costs them dearly. Despite many human failures and scandals, nothing has finished it. It has to be something more than clever words and flattery. It has to be about the way things were made, and really are.

Understood.

“You don’t understand what its like!” – perhaps we remember the cry as the typical complaint of the teenager. But it is not a feeling limited to the years of adjustment to adulthood.

Increasingly we hear people being pressured in their jobs, by managers themselves being pushed harder and harder for results. Too often the employee feels unheard and not understood as they are pushed.

More and more families are pressured by the varied wants and demands of different members. We are encouraged to be our own people and do our own thing – but no one explains how that will fit with the personalities and agendas of others with whom we share our lives.

There is a danger that church life can add to the problem: Live like this, support that, we must do more . . So Hebrews comes as a relief. (We read a short paragraph from the end of chapter 2 today – Hebrews 2:14-18)

Jesus shared our life. It was necessary for us to know he understands, even if he didn’t need that experience to empathise. A fully human – and not wealthy or favoured – life was lived before his death. And it was his death that set us free from the fear and power of death. Indeed, his death opens our way to new life.

If Jesus had not lived like us, there might always have been the suspicion that he didn’t – couldn’t – know what it feels like. We might have felt as if we were being shouted at by some drill sergeant, who had no intention of running the course, or facing the enemy. But v17 “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” – an intermediary, bringing us back to God.

We read this encouragement with the story of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) – a helpless baby brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law. We are reminded of how fully Jesus was immersed in the life of a faithful Jewish family, and in time would take a full part in it. Of course, Simeon and Anna recognise something wonderfully out of the ordinary in this child. He will bring change, and fulfillment of many hopes.

The “growing up” of God’s plans for his people was not without some painful adjustments, just like the “growing up” of children taking their place in the adult world. The Messiah recognised in his mother’s arms turned out to be the Messiah who did not meet popular expectations, at least not in the way some looked for. People would struggle to understand the way God chose to work – as they have in every age, and still do. But at least we cannot doubt that God in Christ did “know what its like!”, and had every sympathy for what Christians would face and struggle with.

It’s no joke!

What is both totally absurd, and also very common? Sadly it is not a joke, and the answer is Christian division and disunity. Paul faces it as he writes to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, following on from last week). He responds to reports he has received that the congregation is dividing into groups or cliques, following Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ.

We can only speculate: Paul had founded a church for Jews and Gentiles together. We might guess that the Cephas group (Cephas is the same person as Peter, the apostle) were concerned to keep the Jewish traditions. It may be that the Apollos people liked the smooth educated style and more polished rhetoric of Apollos, and the Christ clique longed for the good old days. . .

How it happened is not the point. Paul insists that it is quite wrong. The message he had preached was about Jesus. His intention was to share his faith – in Jesus. He had deliberately avoided setting up a personality cult, based on his gifts and appeal. He reinforces this with the point about Baptism. Baptism was into Christ, it mattered, but who performed the ceremony was not important.

Sadly, as I suggested, the failures we all share make it very easy for Christian unity to be damaged. We meet “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – but are too quick to add “as decent Anglicans”, or fans of this or that tradition, or denomination. Three things in particular are dangerous.

  • One is the tradition you like – Catholic ceremonial, Evangelical preaching, Charismatic enthusiasm, Anglican moderation . . We all have likes and dislikes, but they must not replace our loyalty to Christ – or they deny our faith!
  • Similarly, we will take to one leader more easily than another: their syle of speech, personality, or simply the fact that they were there for you at a difficult time. That’s very human, but must never endanger your 1st loyalty – to Christ, and other Christians.
  • And of course there is the question of buildings. We know in Britain we have too many – but the answers are not easy! What can be said is that when a church closes, and some choose not to worship anywhere else, the sceptics may rightly ask whether it was the worship of Christ that ended, or some other social gathering.

You might think that is the end of the question. Christian division is unfaithful, you either follow Jesus and are ready to join with any and all others who do so, or your faith is in question. But there are complications. One is the need to worship in different ways. Young and loud; older and more reflective . .

Another, that while Paul will not allow the church to become cliquey, he also needs to give a lead, and have his teaching authority recognised. Any Christian must have a loyalty to Christ, a commitment to follow as a disciple. But we are also called to fellowship – to be part of a group where we learn, and both give and receive support. That means being being loyal and supportive of a leader/s. (It may sometimes be right to leave and join another group, but if you don’t think grumbling and lack of support a sin – read Exodus about those who didn’t like Moses, what God thought, and what happened to them!)

So let’s remember the importance of being together as we follow the Way of Christ. Let’s practice loving the difficult, and quelling any gossip or grumbling with something positive. It’s not easy, but Christian living was never promised to be!