Category Archives: Year A

Ultimate Relating

If you find yourself stuck in a waiting room with a pile of old magazines, which page do you turn to? For many, the Agony Aunt or problem letters page. Why? Because relationships fascinate us. They make the soaps popular on TV, sell fiction . . and that ought to be an attraction and selling point for the Christian understanding of God.

God matters; our society attempts to ignore God, but he will not disappear. Let me suggest why God should fascinate and be in our conversation and thought far more than seems to happen:
If your picture of God is a sad and lonely old man, or even worse, a nasty and rather spiteful individual, forget it! God is not an individual, but a relationship.

Yes, that’s right. From New Testament times, there was a realisation that Jesus was not just a prophet or religious leader, but that what he claimed – and did – was outrageous and dangerous unless he was, truly, God. Jesus forgave sins against God; Jesus interpreted the Law in new ways; finally he replaced the Old Covenant with a New Covenant. Later, the Father – Son God was understood to be a Father – Son – Spirit God. There is a hint in 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, or hopefully 11-14, which we read today:

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”

2 Corinthians 13.14

(and another in Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”).

Relationships are difficult. We get them wrong, misunderstand, argue. God is a relationship that works in such perfect love and communication that three work together as one. God is one, God is three persons – mind blowing, but amazing, wonderful – and very much something we need to ponder, learn, imitate . . . and advertise!

All Together Now!

On the Sunday which we call Pentecost (after the Jewish festival), the “text of the day” is the story in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit, coming to a group of frightened disciples, transforms them into public witnesses for Jesus’ resurrection. The timid group who met fearfully behind locked doors are filled with power, and their numbers expand dramatically.

What more is there to say? Yet the church traditionally reads 3 or more sections of the Bible on a Sunday – and that provides depth. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:3-13 we find an additional perspective. There are gifts for every believer! Even in that congregation with few educated or wealthy people, it is not just for the leadership, or the “mature”. Everyone is expected to be gifted by the Spirit.

But this is not like Christmas, with competition to see who gets the best! The gifts are given to make it possible for each individual to serve. Paul makes it clear. Just as a living body needs different organs to work together, so the “Body of Christ”, the church, needs all the gifts the Spirit gives to different people to work together. In that way – and only in that way – the whole body is healthy and active.

It is a vision we struggle to put into practice. Ambition, pride and scorn get very much in the way. We don’t remember to identify our own gifts and use them. Sometimes we like to confuse the presents given by God’s Spirit with what we call “natural abilities” – as if they are not also given. And we always find it hard to listen to, and receive from, people who have a different personality, or background. God knows all about it! It is God’s wisdom that we recognise our need of one another in this way. We need to give, to look for the opportunities to use our gifts for others. And we need, no less, to receive humbly what others have to give us, gifts we do not get in any other way.

Reading 1 Corinthians 12 as well as Acts 2 may help us avoid the mistake of thinking that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are personal possessions. Yes, they are given to each of us personally. And yes, Peter becomes a faith “superhero” because of that sermon and its response. But before I get proud about my gifts, the Spirit makes clear both that these are God’s gifts, and that we must work together. Spiritual “character development” comes with spiritual “family life”, and can be both wonderful and challenging.

Suffering, Humility and Discipline!

Through the Easter season we have been reading the first letter of Peter, and noticed that he has a good deal to say about Christian suffering. (My computer Bible finds 6 matches for “Suffer” and another 3 for “Sufferings” in the 5 chapters in NRSV). It has come at an appropriate time with the covid 19 lockdown, but perhaps there is never an inappropriate time to remind followers of Jesus that their lives are no more likely than his to be trouble and stress free. Of course it often isn’t fair – but for everybody, life is like that.

Christians get added trouble because of their faith. It comes in many forms – dislike for people who act differently or stand out from the crowd; a reaction of guilt (even without critical comments); or a fear that they might be right! It is something we need to come to terms with.

Usefully, this week’s reading (given as 1 Peter 4. 12-14; 5. 6-11, but it might make more sense to read 1Peter 4:12 – 5:11) has more to say that might help. First is the idea of humility. (1Peter 5:5,6, and throughout). It is important that we have a realistic understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world and the church. That is not the same as saying we are worthless, which is untrue. Every person is made in the image of God, and loved – and so of enormous value. But that is every person, so we have to understand what our particular gifts are, and how they should be used to work in with others. Humility is about being “down to earth”, always remembering that earth is wonderful stuff that enables miracles of growth.

Humility provides some defence against suffering, helping deal with wounded pride and foolish ambition. With it, Peter commands discipline. Again, it is not a fashionable virtue, but one that shows its value in hard times. We have all been advised in lockdown to have a routine, to exercise, and eat and drink sensibly – yes, it’s a discipline. Peter is more concerned that we are alert to temptation, and ready for the service of God. In other texts, Paul talks about the discipline of the athlete in training, or the soldier on active service. We remember that discipline will not earn us God’s love or salvation, but it will enable us to better respond to those things in effective service.

I hope you have found 1 Peter a timely commentary on life after Easter in 2020. Perhaps, as we move towards Pentecost (are you using the Thy Kingdom Come app?) you might like to read the whole letter again?

The Ideal Lifestyle

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Some years ago David Atkinson pointed out that many people half believe the myths about the problem-free lives of “ideal” people, which does not help at all in facing problems. We all face problems, and many involve fear.

Peter tells us (in our reading of 1 Peter 3:13-22), ““Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”, which might sound like wishful thinking. But he gives a reason: “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord”. If Jesus is Lord, there is no need to fear anyone else. (Peter means it – he is talking to those facing persecution). It is part of the Easter message. Jesus has faced everything, and won! Since he is Lord of all, if you serve him, there is nothing to fear.

That does not mean you will lead a charmed life. V 17 “ For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Suffering may come, but cannot take away the really important things, so don’t worry about it.

Why do good people suffer? God knows, but it happened to Jesus, and many others, and sometimes that is how the gospel spreads. V15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”. Christians had, and have, a great impact. Arguably that comes more from simple believers sharing their faith, hope and love in difficult times than from learned arguments. Hopefully that is one of the things which will emerge from the coronavirus crisis. If Christians are known for being unafraid, practically helpful, but always gentle and respectful – that will get attention and raise questions, leading people to Jesus.

It is not about slogans, or advertising budgets, but a reality in our communities. Verses 19-22 might seem unclear, but Peter is talking about the commitment pledged in Baptism, and the grace of God which transforms people through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Have the myths of happiness in idle luxury, unconcerned with the world around, poisoned you? Or would you value a life without fear, experiencing the ups and downs, but in company with God’s family and travelling to a wonderful destination? Part of the Easter message is that the best lifestyle is yours for the asking.

If you know the truth behind “Jesus is Lord”, and claim it through baptism, then you have nothing to fear. Yes, you may still suffer (which threatens your comfort, not your security). And certainly you will be called on to explain your hope. But I think that gives most of us something to work on.

Between a rock and . .

I recently used the stones dug from my garden to build a small wall. Relying on what I remembered from a course a few years ago, I tried building without cement or other binder – relying on placing the stones together, and their own weight to keep them in position. So far, so good – it is only a small wall, with earth behind it on one side.

Peter’s letter (we have moved back to read 1 Peter 2:1-10 this week) invites Christians to let themselves be built together into a house. The foundation is Christ – Peter draws on Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 28:16 – but the stones are the individual Christians. God places them together. They are supported, by Christ and by one another, and in turn they support other Christians. The picture suggests there may be some pressure!

You may not feel attracted by this idea, or enthusiastic to be placed with others not of your choice. The key is probably verse 3 “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good”. If – a big and important if – you know that God has not only done good things in general, but for you personally, then you can have some confidence in God’s skill in construction. To the extent that you have experienced real care, personal forgiveness or restoration, then you will be prepared to be placed with others to achieve more than you can alone.

It is both an advantage and a difficulty of Christian life that it is lived with others. There is a reality in it, but sometimes the relationships generate friction (and heat!), as we learn to work together, care for one another, and be gentle with old injuries. Similarly, being built together involves pressures and strains. When it works well, these are shared and balanced. When it doesn’t, the build-up at one point can cause breakage and collapse.

If indeed our experience of God is good, and continues to grow in length and depth, we shall be better placed to be supported and to support. Perhaps we need to reflect on how, and how much, God has fed and supported us. Then we shall be more ready to take a place on the Christ foundation to make something greater than our individual selves, or even our local group, for the glory and service of God.

What’s Good about Suffering?

You might expect this week’s excerpt from Peter’s first letter to start at 2:18, or even 2:13, but no, the given reading is 1 Peter 2:19-25. I guess that the reference to slaves accepting the authority of their masters might make twenty-first century people think there is nothing here for them, but quite the opposite! We are all suffering Covid-19 lockdown. Suffering in different ways, perhaps, but I doubt if anyone much is enjoying it. So the question comes, can there be anything good about suffering?

And in one sense, the answer is no. Our God does not inflict suffering, as if it was a good thing, and certainly does not want us to enjoy suffering ourselves, or making others suffer. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is totally wasted.

Jesus suffered. It was unjust, and nasty – but it set us free! That doesn’t make it “right”; Pilate, Judas and others are guilty. But it is something we need to take note of. Peter speaks to Christians who are suffering, and will suffer, for a number of reasons. Some are slaves with pagan masters, others are oppressed in other ways.

He points them, not to futile rebellion or smouldering resentment, but to being aware of God. With God’s support, both to see them through difficult times, and to reassure them of final justice and the vindication of those wrongly accused, they can endure. That endurance will also be an advertisement for their faith, helping others to find truth and help.

His view was realistic and helpful in the first century – and still holds! We need a way to get through difficult times, and this is it. It helps us, and helps others at the same time. It doesn’t make everything right, or mean that we are going to enjoy what is happening. But it does mean that, in God’s world, nothing is wasted – not even the bad bits!

By the way, there is a well presented overview of 1 Peter at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhP7AZQlzCg&list=PLH0Szn1yYNecanpQqdixWAm3zHdhY2kPR&index=27

In hard times

What do you say to someone having a hard time? Perhaps feeling isolated, threatened, and bruised. One answer is found in 1 Peter, which we are going to follow through the lectionary readings for the next few weeks. It offers a commentary on the significance of the resurrection.

So what do you say? We’ll look at todays reading – 1 Peter 1:17-23. Start with that first verse: “live in reverent fear during the time of your exile” – not perhaps the sort of encouragement we would expect, but follow it through.

“Exile”. Not literally – the letter (see 1:1) is not to refugees, nor to Jews living outside Palestine, but to Gentile Christians living, as Abraham had done, as one passing through the world on the way to heaven. It may be that these Christians felt the social exclusion shared by some Christian young people – because they were different. Peter encourages them to be different, for a reason.

“you know that you were ransomed”

1 Peter 1:18

I hope you do, too! Ransomed is a word we understand from kidnapping and the taking of hostages. But we can be more precise. Ransomed from v18 “futile ways inherited from your ancestors”.

We can all look back at wasted time – and perhaps worse – when we did not offer a service as effective as we should have to God. That is what we were – and are being – saved from.

Ransomed by v18b not valuables, but the sacrifice of Christ. No detail here of how, but a reminder of the real cost. Also v20 “for your sake” – this becomes personal. Yes, in Passiontide we think about the suffering of Jesus, and in Easter of the joy of his Resurrection. But when we put those together, we see that the implications of the Resurrection are more significant because of their cost.

Which brings us, knowing what we are Ransomed from, and what we are Ransomed by, to what we are Ransomed to v21 to trust in God “so that your faith and hope are set on God” Peter will return several times to talk about holiness of life. About the need for Christians to take on board what has been done for them, and then to live the life. Now he speaks of obedience to the truth, and love. v22

New birth is a new status, but more important the start of a new life, which, unlike the futility described in v18, is to last and grow into something valuable, serviceable, and eternal

What do you say to someone having a hard time? Most of us try things like, hope it gets better soon. Peter takes a rather deeper line. Remember who you are, what your ransom cost, then take full advantage and live it to the full.

Still Thankful

When Peter wrote (we are looking at 1 Peter 1:3-9 ), Christians were not having an easy time; like us, they were people who had not known Jesus during his ministry. Like us they had problems, though theirs may have been from the emperor Nero. Life is difficult for many people, now as ever. I imagine most of you could identify “issues”; perhaps you’d like to think about it as you read. What are the problems, the irritants, the sticking points, the causes of tension. Is there one main one, or two or three together (more than that, and you’re probably missing the point, the root cause). If everybody annoys you, it may be you who is the problem

Have you got some idea? Good, because what Peter has to say may well apply to us, too. First of all, he urges us to “give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” v3 – thanks for the new life we were given through Jesus’ resurrection. That’s important, not least because it tends to get lost when other things get to us. If you don’t know what you are doing, at least give thanks, and remember what you are giving thanks for.

Then he talks about the safety of our presents. Have you ever had something put away for you? The silver mug or spoon at the Christening; the toy that’s very nice, but a little too old for you just yet? Adults may have things in the bank, like the deeds of the house, or a piece of family jewellery – kept safe. Well says Peter, at an unsettled time, isn’t it great to know that God’s good presents to us are kept safe; they can’t be stolen, or spoiled. So even in rough, uncertain times, there is something to give thanks for personally.

So you can face your “issues” with thanks to God, – and with faith. Too often we leave a gap between the difficult bits of life and our faith, but that’s a mistake! We are given a new life, and need to live it, and to apply its energy and principles to our problems and sticking points. Peter is not surprised that the Christians are suffering; he didn’t expect them to escape difficulty because they had been good (verses 6, 7a). Their problems will help them to grow up in faith, showing what is genuine, and what isn’t and needs to be replaced by something firmer.

He doesn’t offer an instant fix. Look at Jesus he will say (in chapter 2:18f), and as his followers you will not expect an easy ride, or immunity from pain, or success. But look at Jesus, he will say, and you will see how worthwhile it all was, and how glorious is the way he walked, even with its pain.

We may be glad that our Royal family is one we can give thanks for. I don’t think I can find a single point of comparison between them and the emperor Nero. But like those first century Christians, we face problems, and need reminding to face them with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, remembering that the worst trouble is not going to make us lose God’s best blessings, and that if things are rough for a time, it should sort out our faith.

New Life

The last few weeks have been a shock. Covid-19 lockdown, news of a rising death toll. Separation from family, friends, and familiar activities and places. We have had to learn new ways, changed routines.

Which might help us to understand just how shocking the events of that first Easter were. To disciples already emotionally exhausted by the exciting, confusing events of the last week in Jerusalem – not dead ! ??? It was another surprise twist in the plot. It would mean a totally different life.

That is what Paul is saying in Colossians 3:1-4 (which we read today – you may want to read to verse 17, which expands these four verses). Sharing what Christ has won is no small thing, and it does require that we die and rise to a new way of living. This is no mere formality, not something acquired by being born into a good family, getting an education, or trying to share in the faith or goodness of other people.

I hope you can celebrate Easter, and that your life will show the effects of being raised with Christ, so that your ambition is “on things that are above”. If that is real, the Holy Spirit will be at work. There will be opportunities to take, and inner changes. You may not notice much at first – though other people may, but if you hold onto the new life, it will grow and bear fruit.

Attitude!

Sometime one line seems to say it all. Stuck at home, bored and tired of Covid-19 restrictions? Fearful of illness, running out of money or food, or just the state of the world “afterwards”? Wondering what has happened to change everything so fast?

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had” – says Paul.

(That’s the Good News Bible translation of Philippians 2:5, as we read Philippians 2:5-11).

Perhaps this Holy Week you will read again the account of Jesus betrayal and death. Perhaps you will follow one of the many schemes of Bible reading, on paper or virtually on a phone or computer app. However you remember Jesus, for those who follow him, 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?

Again, 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”

This Holy Week we have more opportunities than any other week in the year. Please take them, even if present conditions are difficult – perhaps especially if present conditions are difficult – not to be distracted, but to think again about

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