Category Archives: Year A

Not good news?

Paul, preacher of a wonderful gospel, is left with an agonising problem. Romans 9 opens with pain – we read Romans 9:1-5). A Jew (more observant than most – look at 2 Corinthians 11 etc) and one-time persecutor of Christians, he has been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles. His career has met with success (by grace), and a large number of churches look to him as founder. Corinth, in Galatia, Philippi, and others.

The problem? He knows, only too well, that the faith of these non-Jews, “outsiders”, has been won against the opposition of some Jews, who would have stopped them if they could. He knows that he is seen as a traitor, and there are numbers of people who would gladly kill him as a religious duty. He knows that Judaism doesn’t want to know about Jesus; there are exceptions, thank God, but the majority won’t listen.

In one sense it’s not a problem. The Christian church has made the decision – Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, – gentiles who become Christian believers do not have to become Jews, only to keep the Christian faith and avoid some things particularly offensive to Jews. History will show that the offspring will overtake the parent, spreading further and becoming far larger. But for Paul, there remains the pain of seeing people he knows, and others he understands so well from his former life, refusing to accept what God has done and is doing.

Are we past the issue? Many of us – perhaps all of us? – know the difficulty of friends and close family, about whose faith we have no confidence. We can’t always be sure: faith is not about words, but attitudes (and I suspect the faith of a depressive or someone with little confidence is less obvious than that of the opposite personality type – but even then it needs action, reality).

How do you cope with the fact that parents or children may live, by choice, outside Christian faith and hope? I hope you pray for them – for it is a serious matter. To live without faith is to live in danger of the judgement of God, to live without the assurance of heaven. And so we pray, and take what opportunities we can to encourage faith, to explain, to take them to places where they might hear the gospel in ways that would strike a chord. We listen, to hear what they think and feel, to check for ways in, for books or films or experiences that might help.

We may be seen as traitors, “letting the side down”. We may even find religious people trying to prevent people coming to living faith. You know the sort of phrase that begins “We don’t do that here” . . We will certainly find people who will lie and cheat, to prevent the message about Jesus being taken seriously (by themselves or others). But in the end, we have to wait for God. Knowing that we don’t understand more than a tiny part of his purposes. Knowing that, while he can work in amazing ways to turn people right around, he so values their free response that he will not force, nor let us do so. No nagging, no blackmail. We have to use the methods of Christ, and offer love, knowing it may be refused.

Paul’s concern for his fellow Jews shows his human side. How will we be seen for our concern for non-Christian friends?

DIY Life?

Most of us will have a go at fixing things, though some are better at Do It Yourself than others, and there is always that difficult question about when it is better to call in a professional. That might be a way of seeing Romans 10:5-15. There are those for whom life is definitely a DIY project. They have some instructions, gathered from somewhere, and they are going to get on with it (or perhaps will when they get around to it). Then there are others, who have called in the expert, and God is in control.

That, at least in my mind, is one way of describing the difference between the Jewish people Paul agonises about, because they refuse the offer of grace in Christ, and the “outsiders” who have happily accepted the gospel he preaches.

We might think of those who enjoy gardening. Some will try to force their plot to conform to a plan, while others will encourage and allow what seems to fit, assisting, but knowing that they do not control, or even fully understand how it works.

Or we might consider two people, living in neighbouring houses. One lives in his own house, and is proud of it. The other knows very well that he was not the architect, nor the builder, (nor even the person who paid the bills), but is happy to live there and enjoy the facilities, discovering new features as time goes on.

You will gather that, although Paul is concerned with the situation in his own time where the Christian message has proved much more acceptable to Gentiles than to Jewish people, the issue is wider than that. The gospel speaks of a belief, or faith, (and we might want to say “trust”) which allows God to work in us and our lives. Just as the Old Testament covenant (the Law) was freely offered to guide God’s people – but had been taken as a sign of privilege and superiority – so the gospel is freely offered to all. For Jewish people, it was hard to accept that non-Jewish “outsiders” were being offered salvation freely, on just the same terms as they were. The issue hasn’t gone away, because there are still some people who think they are privileged, or deserve something better than others for some reason. Sadly, there are even people in churches who think in this way! They imagine that their morality, or hard work, or something makes them more deserving – when God is wanting to be generous to all.

Some enjoy DIY, and some quickly call for a professional. It is true life has to be done in person, but we are offered expert help, and free! The offer has to be accepted, and acted on (not put off until . . ), but it is real. And for those who can see it, it lines up with what God was intending all along. He was always giving, to help people to freedom and full life.

One of the delights of a garden is being able to share it with others – swapping ideas, and sometimes produce and seeds as well. Romans 10:13 turns to the need for messengers. Even though the news is good, not everyone will receive it. But it still needs to be given, talked about, and shared in every way possible. Every Christian has to be an advertisement for their faith and their Lord.

Some will know that my wife and I support and sometimes speak for the organisation called SAT-7, which organises Christian TV produced by and for people in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a great organisation, bringing together many denominations and traditions to use satellite TV to share good news, helping people understand Christian faith, but also modern family life, and appropriate responses to many family and life situations. There are programmes for children, teens and families, in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi (Persian). If you are not familiar with it, do visit www.sat7uk.org

All Win

Half the world is lonely. We can go to the other side of it for a holiday, but a good many people have moved away, and so old communities are full of newcomers and families are not now so close. You can take your qualifications and get a job anywhere, and people do – so the chances of knowing people well diminish, and of growing old with the same people become less likely.

If half the world is lonely, the other half is cynically looking after number one, because nobody else is going to bother. Perhaps that’s too bleak a picture, – its not one I’m going to leave you with – but for many today it’s probably a fair representation of their outlook.

How could it be any different? Some will look for a fairy story romanticism, others hark back to the good old days, others pretend not to notice. None of those works very well. There’s a better way. It’s a way which is realistic about the present and the future. Everybody wants “Somebody on my side” – that’s part of the offer. Not somebody against everyone else, but somebody with a real concern, and understanding, and the ability to change things.

Everybody wants to be understood, – and that is part of the offer.

Everybody wants to be respected, and – well that does rather depend on what you do; let’s stick with being understood.

You may have recognised that the answer comes from Romans 8 (and specifically Romans 8:26-39, which we read for Sunday 26 July in the Revised Common Lectionary). Paul knows all about the problems! He has written about the reality of evil, and of the failure of a set of rules, however good, to solve the problem. Now he is talking about God’s solution – a way of life that involves faith, and grace.

It is not an instant cure. Paul speaks of how we don’t even know how to pray about the problems – perhaps that is a reference to praying in tongues, when the person praying doesn’t know what he is asking. But he is confident that with God’s help, nothing can stand against us. And he is confident in having God’s help.

That’s the crunch. How can we know the God’s help isn’t kept for someone else? For someone more deserving, someone nicer, someone more able . . ?

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:31b, 32

That’s the answer! Jesus, and Jesus’ life, is given for us all – for each one, without exception. That is how we know we’re not alone. That is how we know there is someone on our side. That is the truth of love conquers all.

And so we have confidence in winning – a complete victory assured. And so we can – should – must – live in a way that is impossible for other people. We really do live in a different world to most of the people around us. We need to understand that, to make sure that we are confident and secure in God’s love for us.

Then, as that changes us, we need to tell other people. That’s why we Churches with activities aimed at those outside. Your Church is not there to provide you with your preferred spirituality. It exists to tell people how God is with us, and it expects everyone who hears that message to be active in passing it on.

Creation in trouble

As we work our way through Romans, each new section takes us a little further and opens up a new section of the Christian landscape. Reading Romans 8:12-25 this week does just that. We have been reminded of God’s grace, which reached out to us long before we were ready, and rescues us by grace, through faith. It is not about our being “good enough”, or even ready. It is by our trusting Jesus and what he has done for us, and accepting his gift.

Paul has talked in detail about how that does not mean a freedom to misbehave. We have to “choose our team”, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago. Now he will describe Christian life in a different way.


“ For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

Rom 8.14

Children are part of the family, they have a place of their own. They look to their father – in Roman society, very much the head of the family. They will learn, and grow in understanding and maturity. But they are still children. This is a picture of Christian life we can understand and learn from. We are glad to be accepted, to have our place, and the expectation of more to come. At the same time, there is the Father to look up to, much to learn, and the routine of family life to deal with. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, and not slaves. Slaves have no freedom, no expectation, no place.

Children, as they get older, look forward to inheriting the good things the family has built up. But the thought that we share inheritance with Jesus reminds Paul that we are likely to share his suffering before we come to the glory of heaven. Indeed, he talks of the way the whole creation is not working as it should. Now that we understand more about Climate Change, this may be easier to grasp. There is something wrong, not just with the way humans “naturally” behave wrongly, but with the way everything works. Many “natural” disasters have human causes – from people living in dangerous places because no place is made for them elsewhere, to droughts caused by deforestation and poor farming practice. We need to take all this seriously, and take what action we can. Climate Change is our responsibility, and needs our action to control it urgently. Yet even if all that is done, there remains an awareness that creation is somehow distorted, bent out of God’s pattern.

Fortunately, there is still more. God’s children look beyond a world where Climate Change is limited, where corruption and injustice are dealt with. We look forward to something new, not just repaired. We hope for a life not yet available. We search for the fulfillment of a plan we know is good and wonderful – but the detail is still awaited. We have to hope, because it is not yet seen, or fully known. But the hope is confident, because we have seen and understood what God has already done, and seen where it is leading.

Who’s in Charge?

Who’s in Charge? – we usually ask when things aren’t working. No service, no progress, no satisfaction. Who’s in Charge? Last week, we looked at Romans 7, talking about the struggle within, knowing what we ought to do and want to do, but not always doing it. This week, on to Romans 8:1-11

“there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”

Romans 8:1

That has to be good news. Nobody likes being put down, and being judgmental is a sure way to unpopularity. But what does that mean? not everybody escapes, so who? The rest of our reading explains.

“Those who live as their human nature tells them to, have their minds controlled by what human nature wants.” Good News Bible, may be clearer than
NIV “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires”

Romans 8:5

This is what we might call selfishness – but might not always recognise. It can be like the child “I want this, I won’t do that, tantrum..” But it can also be the clever executive who plans their way to the top, by fair means or foul, stopping for no one, or even the charming and subtle person, who will never put themselves in a position they don’t want to be in, for anybody.

What does it mean to “live according to human nature” (other translations have “sinful nature” or “the flesh”)? It means:

  • “Who’s in Charge?” – I am!
  • “What are you going to do?” What I want to
  • “What’s life all about?” ME.

[Some years ago, Jane Williams surprised a Conference in Oxford. She was talking about Spirituality, and reminded us how popular it is, how every personality has their diet, their routine and personal space carefully designed. But it is all about their fulfillment, their career, their choices & ambitions. Christians shouldn’t have that, but a different thing, called discipleship, about following God, not our own choices.]

“To be controlled by human nature results in death;” or
NIV “The mind governed by the flesh is death”

but

“to be controlled by the Spirit results in life and peace.” or
NIV “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace”

Romans 8:6

God doesn’t leave us to do our own thing, and suffer other people doing theirs. His love finds a better way –

“For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death. What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin.   God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature.”

Romans 8:2-4 GNB

This is where we find what it means to “live in union with Christ Jesus”. We accept, not only that Jesus lived and died for us, but that our lives need now to be directed by his Spirit. This is what we ought to know as Christian life, or discipleship – but we don’t always recognise it. It is not being a doormat, trampled by everyone else. It is not failing to enjoy good and beautiful things. It is not letting our talents and abilities go to waste. Nor is it being very religious. But it is a new set of answers to those questions:

  • Who’s in Charge? God is, both of the big plan, and the details in my life
  • “What are you going to do?” What God wants
  • “What’s life all about?” God’s plan, which includes me, and the people I love, and much, much more.

Too often we try to fudge the issue with comments like “I’m not doing any harm”. This passage is much blunter:

“And so people become enemies of God when they are controlled by their human nature; for they do not obey God’s law, and in fact they cannot obey it.  Those who obey their human nature cannot please God.”
while for Christians it works differently
“But you do not live as your human nature tells you to; instead, you live as the Spirit tells you to—if, in fact, God’s Spirit lives in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ lives in you, the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God.”

Romans 8:7-8 and 9-10a GNB

The challenge for us is not to understand, it’s very simple: Who’s in charge? God, or your human nature. The challenge is to trust God, and let him control, and go on with that, so that he has more and more control, and we get more confidence to let him drive faster.

Bug in the system?

Paul has set out for the Roman Church he hopes to visit the need for Christians to live the new life won for them by Jesus, and not to think that forgiveness allows them to indulge every disordered desire. In chapter 7, he begins to ask how this works out – a basic question for Christians in every age and culture.

The Jewish Christians recognise that they are now released from the Law – meaning the commands of the Old Testament (like the 10 commandments of Exodus 20). They know very well that it is one thing to know what is right and good, but another to do it. This is a problem we share. We can say that it would be wonderful if society worked according to our plan, or even if we lived in this way – but we only have to try losing weight, or getting up earlier, or being less grumpy, to discover the difficulty. As we read Romans 7:15-25, we have to admit that wanting to do something, and actually doing it consistently, are two things separated by a problem in ourselves.

Paul identifies the problem as sin. Even when we want to be good, it doesn’t always work out like that. What can we do? Of course, one solution is to change the target – “Be reasonable”, “It doesn’t matter” . . But often it does matter, and the failures cause problems. Education, discipline, harsher punishments have all been suggested, tried, – and none have provided a full solution.

The rescue that Paul has experienced is provided by Jesus. There is a fault in human behaviour (not in the design; it was caused by the refusal to recognise God and do things the way God planned). Humans do not have the ability to do what they want and believe to be right consistently and constantly – so the power of God must be brought to bear.

We shall talk more about life in the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 – next week’s reading. There is one more thing before we leave chapter 7. Is this experience of human weakness experienced by all humans, or do Christians escape?

Certainly all humans contain that flaw that prevents the good they decide on becoming the unfailing behaviour they deliver. Some are more disciplined, some less tempted, but perfection is not an option. Christians have access to the vital missing ingredient – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in several ways, including providing direction (what should be done), motivation (why bother?), and the power or energy to get on with it. So does that mean that Christians don’t have the problem? Not quite. With the help of the Holy Spirit they can achieve much more, but never in this life become perfect. There is still the problem, now alongside the solution, but lurking to trip us up. Thank God that’s not the end of the story!

Choose your team!

I’m not really “into” football. I can enjoy watching the occasional match, or highlights, and see the skill and planning. But I don’t support one team, and somehow it seems that it’s not a sport where you can just enjoy watching, you have to be a supporter.

I wonder if Paul would have used that metaphor when in Romans 6:12-23 he argues with those who can’t understand grace. “What!” they say, “If we are saved by grace through faith, there is no point in being good at all!”. Paul is horrified. The point of the new life is that it is “in Christ”. Just as we are set free by his death, so our freedom is to live his new life. That new life is not about earning approval by being good and following the rules, but it is certainly about sharing his love, and using the gifts of the Spirit in the service of God’s Kingdom wherever we are.

The comparison Paul does choose in these verses is slavery. If, having been a slave, you are set free – then life can go different ways. You can fall back into slavery, because you run into debt and are sold to make a payment. Or you can make the most of your freedom.

But it is wider than that. Think of walking up a mountain ridge. On either side, the ground slopes down, gently at first. You can go either way. (One way represents “the way of righteousness, leading to holiness”, the other impurity leading to “ever-increasing wickedness”). Once you start down, left or right, it is easier to go on in that direction, and takes more effort to move back. The further you go, the more you lose sight of the other side. It is just the way things are. Christian freedom can be diluted by the pursuit of pleasure, until the individual becomes ensnared, and all sight of a life of holy love and service is lost. But a life which looks to what God is doing becomes ever more interested and involved in that.

Paul knows that we are not simple characters, and will go on to talk about that. But every life can be searched for an aim, a big ambition. Here he reminds his readers that they all have something to be ashamed of in their former lives. Now that they have been freed by the love of God, so they should use these newly released lives to search out and share all the goodness available in this Saviour.

Christian Behaviour

It is easy to get confused about what Christian Behaviour should be. There are lots of “things we ought / ought not to do”, but they don’t always agree, and anyway, who says? Of course the Old Testament had commandments which gave a picture of what God was like, and liked. But they could mislead – some thought that just having the commandments made them better than other people, and in any case, they all made mistakes and failed to live perfectly.

Paul taught Christians (Jews or Gentiles) that they would get to heaven because their sin was forgiven by the grace of God, depending on the death of Jesus, and through the faith of the believer. But he then had to face the question (we are reading Romans 6:1-11), “So, why behave? If sins are forgiven, why worry?” Paul’s answer might be paraphrased “No way: Live for yourself, or live for Christ – but you can’t do both!”

I don’t have to tell you about living for yourself – we’ve all done it! It’s selfish, which means that we don’t enjoy the pleasures as much as we might, both because we may have hurt others to get them, and because we are looking over one shoulder to see who may be trying to take them away. It makes a world where you’re on your own, everyone against everyone else and pity help the weak. And if you live for yourself there’s always a problem with guilt and failure. You’re never going to reach God’s standards, and you probably won’t keep up your own, either.

So, what’s the alternative – to live for Christ. That doesn’t make us perfect; you may have noticed that Christians are still sinners. But it is a totally different motivation. As forgiven sinners, we work together with others who share this loyalty. They’re an odd lot, and sometimes it is rubbing along with them that rubs off some of our rough edges. But if we share a Master, we also have a real unity. This is a family which, though it can argue, has a very strong reason for living together.

There’s another benefit. The more we get into this service of Christ, the more like him we become. It’s one of the things the Holy Spirit does to us and with us; you may not notice, but other people will. What are we saying? A lot of people still make the mistake of thinking that Christian Behaviour is “being good” – getting a good score on keeping the commandments. That is a mistake.

Christian behaviour is all about serving Jesus, living for him. (Rather like the line in today’s gospel, Matthew 10:32,33 “If anyone declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same for him before my Father in heaven. But if anyone rejects me publicly, I will reject him before my Father in heaven.” The question is “Who do you belong to?” and there is the same sharp division). Those commandments are still useful – they tell us things what God thinks is important, and warn us of dangers.

If you want to know how you are doing, don’t say “I wonder if 7/10 is a pass mark for keeping the commandments” but ask “How much of today did I live for Jesus, and how much did I really live to get my own way?”

The God who smiles First

We have many different pictures of God. Sometimes they give stern suggestions of the never-satisfied perfectionist; sometimes they are more tolerant of failure, even expecting our poor performance. Too often they reflect nothing more than our human experience, and the feeling that “you get out what you put in”. But we want – need – more than our imaginings, based as they often are on our experience growing up.

Through this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary, we shall be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, starting from chapter 5. (Today we read Romans 5:1-8). Romans has had a profound effect on many Christians through the ages, perhaps because it was written to a church Paul had not started, and gives a more systematic account of his belief and life.

At any rate, Romans 5:8 gives us a clear view of God

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Romans 5:8

Whatever our background suggests God might, or even should be, here is fact. The Christian God is the God who smiles first. Not waiting for us to be ready, or make an effort, Jesus comes to earth and dies for us. It is the most generous welcome to a new life – but without force. The offer is there. It remains open. But it can be accepted or declined.

The Christians in Rome already had some idea of this, and also knew that the Christian life with God was not entirely easy. Free of guilt and confident of being loved, they faced all the ordinary difficulties of life, and the threat of persecution as well. Paul won’t let them be depressed about that:

“we also glory in our sufferings”

Romans 5:3

Hard to justify? Well, read on. These Christians are not just those rescued from danger, as if to remain feeble and traumatised. They are being grown into strong disciples, to share hope and love. The Christian picture of God is of a God who smiles first, and with good reason.

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!