Category Archives: Year B

Reality, not scapegoating.

Our world is very confusing. Sometimes it encourages you to do just whatever you feel like. Then without warning it is mercilessly looking for a scapegoat, because somebody must be responsible for what has gone wrong. It seems the first century was rather the same, and John writes to his Church in a very realistic way. We read 1 John 1:1-2:2 (that’s the first letter of John, not the gospel).

“Now the message that we have heard from his Son and announce is this: God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him. If, then, we say that we have fellowship with him, yet at the same time live in the darkness, we are lying both in our words and in our actions.”

1 John 1:5,6 GNB

Is the Christian community supposed to be different? Is it realistic to expect us to live in the middle of our society, and hold other values? Yes. We are called to be light in darkness, and salt in rottenness.

  • we have the details laid out for us in the Christian Way: love, truthfulness, submission to one another, work, generosity, honour . .
  • we have the motivation. God has loved us and done for us what we could never do, our response in thanksgiving is invited.
  • difference is vital to our witness. We are not a club, doing things that keep us happy, but God’s people in the world, advertising his plans.

But just as we are coming to terms with the call to be different, we come to:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make a liar out of God, and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10 GNB

Part of the Good News is forgiveness – not forgiveness once, then perfection. We continue to fail, and while we can’t be complacent, we mustn’t stop trying, nor pretend to a perfection we don’t have. We have to be realistic. We shall fail as individuals, and as a community; sometimes just struggling to make progress, sometimes more dramatically. We all remain capable of getting it badly – seriously, scandalously – wrong, and we need to know that to guard against it.

There is an argument over

And Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven, and not our sins only, but also the sins of everyone.

1 John 2:2 GNB

Traditional translations (KJV) have “propitiation”, while some prefer “expiation”. Expiation, they say, removes the “defilement” of sin, while propitiation is about buying off an angry God with sacrifice. That’s not a Christian idea – but neither is the idea that God just has to chill out and forgive. Sin is not some ritual defilement; it is the very personal breakdown of relationship, caused when we rebel against God’s rule and direction. It is very personal, and serious – to the extent that it cost Jesus his death. John Stott writes, Christian propitiation “is an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God.” I think we need the language of propitiation, understanding that there is nothing petty about God’s response to human sin.

However you take it, Jesus is the pattern and the answer. Wherever his people gather, the calling of Jesus remains:

  • to be a holy (different) community
  • to be a humble community, that knows its failures, and looks to Jesus for forgiveness

Concentrating the mind

In the days when I was a student among Christian friends, we were sometimes asked, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” As long as it remains theoretical, it is an interesting question. Nowadays, I suppose, some would simply want to avoid trouble, and get him shot without argument, but I think we were a bit more assertive. I was reminded of this by Paul’s opening of 1Corinthians 15:1-11

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don’t, your faith was all for nothing.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-2

And the message is very simply summarised – nothing about morality, liturgy, lifestyle – all those are consequences.

“I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Simple as that. Jesus died for our sins (and the death was real, because he was buried). Jesus was raised to life (and the rising was real, because there are a whole string of witnesses, including Paul). He didn’t just die. Most people manage that, one way or another, but he died for our sins. For the detail in that, we are told “according to the scriptures” Paul means the Old Testament, because the New Testament doesn’t yet exist, so especially Isaiah, and the other passages which help us understand significance of the Cross.

Jesus didn’t just appear to people, like a ghost, or as some outpouring of group hysteria. He came to individuals and groups, in a variety of places and times of day. Often unexpected, sometimes unrecognised for a time, they believed in his life. Their conversations, and reconciliations, were real. Many would die; nobody suggested a fraud. This is the earliest Christian Creed (apart from “Maranatha”, and the phrase “Jesus is Lord”, perhaps). It reminds us our our roots, and Paul tells us of the need to stay with this faith if we wish to benefit from it.

So, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” It would be easy to get it wrong: nerves, or especially in our culture, arrogantly saying, “Do this . .”

I think my best suggestion would go something like this:

“Excuse me, I’m Andrew Knight. I don’t know if there’s anything you particularly want, but I wonder if I could tell you a story? (It might stop there if there was a negative answer, but I might be able to go on:)

It was a long time ago, but there was a man who lived an exciting life, helping many, and winning respect from ordinary people. He made some enemies, and although he did nothing wrong and they had to fix his trial, they got him condemned and executed. His friends were in despair, shocked and frightened, but slowly reports came in that he was alive. They couldn’t understand; some had seen him buried. But it was true, Jesus, somehow, wonderfully, was alive. He appeared to different groups, in different places, they talked, ate, and their lives changed. The story has spread, and there are still those like me who believe it.

I hope I never have to tell it in those circumstances, but, like all of you, I have to try and find ways of saying things to people every day. One of the challenges is to find the time, and place, and way of saying, the really important things. It isn’t easy, but it’s a good start when you are clear about the basics:

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. . . . . Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15

Attitude

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the background to a passage, like Philippians 2:5-11. Is Paul quoting a poem or hymn – and what difference would that make if it was true? Does that mean he agrees with every word, or is he just using something his readers already know to drive home a main point? Even more tantalising, is this a piece of encouraging teaching, or a gentle rebuke to leaders who are getting too competitive, or status conscious, or just proud of their position and achievements?

A little thought brings us back to the point, or perhaps points. “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”, or as the Good News Bible puts it, “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. Does it matter if Paul is quoting another writer? No, these words have to be taken seriously whoever the original human author was. And it is important we consider the words and what they have to say about Jesus, especially if in the next few days we will think again about his Passion and Death. That attitude? That readiness to endure quietly, to give in such an extreme way?

We could find it easier to speculate about whether this is encouragement or rebuke for the Philippian church leaders. We know our churches are not perfect, consisting as they do of sinners who may be forgiven, but are not yet sorted out. No doubt that was true of first century Philippi, too. But the question rebounds when we have the courage to ask of ourselves, “Can you take encouragement here? Does this help to heal wounds you have?”. After that, we may be able to face, “Do you understand the need to follow this lead, to repent of complacency, pride, failure to give the right lead?”

Of course, we may recognise that we are being told that it is not all about us. There is a focus here on Christ, the humble, victorious Christ. Do we need to redirect our focus, to find a centre there. Faith is not in ourselves, nor should we allow it to be re-defined as self-help, life coaching, or any other sort of egocentric rebranding.

“The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had”. I have a lot of work to do on that, but I can understand where the goal is.

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Basics

There are churches, and speakers, where you know that on every occasion you will be told that Jesus died for our sins, because, they say, that is the gospel. And they are right. The gospel is about Jesus, and the New Testament is quite clear that the climax of his ministry was his death, which was in some way for us. I can think of at least 2 reasons why Anglicans might not seem to say this so often. One is that they bore more easily, and don’t take to repetition. A better one would be that, though Jesus death for us is the centre of the gospel, there are many implications to work out, and enough to think about to keep many brilliant men occupied for more than a lifetime.

Nevertheless, if we are to talk of Ephesians 2:1-10, we shall have a timely revisiting of basic gospel, which we ought to have clearly in mind as our Christian foundation.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-3

Despite a generally held opinion, we learn there is nothing natural in going to heaven; we deserve judgement, and a very different fate. Perhaps that is something to come to terms with?

It is good to remember what we once were (and, especially if that is difficult, what we may again be tempted to be) – living according to our own desires. How often that is now given as a description of “retirement”! Be careful; there is nothing magic about Christian habits to stop you falling back into unfaith and God’s judgement. If that’s the bad – well serious – news, the good is wonderful

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:4-9

God loves us, and reaches out to help, – not because we are good, not because we deserve or earn it; but because he is that sort of God. Forgiveness is free! It’s very difficult to take that seriously. We are confused by people whose love is not unconditional, but it’s true. So we are free, and need to live like that!

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Yes, that is what we are made for. But the good work comes after forgiveness; it is a reaction, not a payback. Today many will celebrate family, and some will re-open old wounds. Yet the Christian hope of life is in a family where all are loved – loved and offered free forgiveness despite what they are and what they have done. It’s quite a family.

Together round – a Cross?

How do you feel about people whose idea of a day out is to visit the Chamber of horrors? Do you really want to know the technical details of gas chambers, electric chairs or guillotines? No? I find that encouraging. But why do Christians meet around a CROSS? People generally find “Christ crucified” a strange message, let alone Good News (we are reading 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 ).

If God wanted to sort out the world, why not do it? We can’t explain God, but perhaps he could have abolished the troublesome human race, or just taken away our freedom to do evil? This would not be our preference, so what can God do to avoid wasting the lot of us, yet sort out the mess?

The answer is – the Cross.    And it is Good News, however odd, because it is about Victory over: Death, Evil, Temptation, plotting enemies, Failed friends, [Helplessness, despair, insignificance]. In fact everything we need to beat, because the Cross is the cross – a painful death by torture. It is about a depth of commitment (God’s), about not crushing the weak or the despairing, and about sharing in the worst of earthly life. It is NOT about personal success, or pretending. It has nothing to do with “image” or “status”. In fact the opposite, it is a constant reminder that left to ourselves, we invent methods of torture.

So what’s the problem? God isn’t playing the games people like to play. The Jews (verse 22; and many others) wanted miracles – let God do something dramatic to catch attention and entertain. The Cross is dramatic, but not entertaining; its too painful, not just for the victim. It doesn’t flatter us. The Greeks (verse 22) and many like them want wisdom.    They liked to debate, and wanted to find truth in assertions of human dignity, in the heroic potential of the human spirit. The Cross tells us of humanity in such a dangerous mess that they couldn’t help themselves, and needed to be rescued.

The Church in Corinth wasn’t rich, didn’t have any geniuses; they were people others liked to make fun of, and God chose to use to show his power.    That’s the problem, as Christians we are people of the Cross, we can’t say how wonderful we are, but verse 31.

“Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:31

So I hope you understand why the Cross is much more than a symbol, and stands as a summary of Christian faith. Faith which is Good News, because God doesn’t sort out the world by wasting us when we fail to meet his standards, but chooses instead the difficult and painful way of suffering the worst to offer us the best, and leaves us a reminder that shows the depth of his commitment, the greatness of his victory, and the depths to which we fall if we choose to go it alone.

Good enough?

Paul faced fury in some quarters for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism; it provoked persecution and the division of the Christianity from Judaism. 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. It may help to look at what is being said around our reading of Romans 4:13-25. In Romans 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law, that is the Old Testament as we know it. 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. That’s a long time ago, but the relevance to us is in the question: “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 many 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. 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. v35 “us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our sanctification.” We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised.

What caused a fuss in the first Century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way like this. 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.

Suffering

Some people find it difficult to talk about suffering, perhaps because of bad experiences in their past. Others talk about little else. Hopefully Christian faith finds a balance. But it cannot avoid the subject, because it reflects so much of human experience.

When we come to the first letter of Peter, chapter 3 jumps in at verse 18 (1 Peter 3:18-22 is our reading)

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”

1 Pet 3:18

This is suffering with a reason, not some perverted psychology. As Jesus endured undeserved suffering, so Christians do not welcome hardship, but accept whatever comes as part of following their Saviour. You don’t have to enjoy it – it would be a bad thing if you did – but need to understand the possibility.

Then (18b-20) Peter goes on to talk about how Jesus, after his death, preached to the spirits in prison. There are different opinions of what exactly that means: does he [1] proclaim the gospel to those who died before his ministry, without the chance to hear the gospel, or [2] announce his victory to the powers of evil? It doesn’t matter too much to us, though we would do well to remember the judgement on those who refuse obedience.

The reference to Noah, and the saving of a handful of people in the ark from God’s judgement on the wickedness of his time, brings us to verses 21,22. Just as Noah’s ark floated people to safety, so Christian baptism is a way of escape to safety. It’s significance is nothing to do with being physically washed, nor is it a magic spell. Baptism applies the power of Jesus victory over evil and his resurrection; it needs faith – and can be disowned by those who do not live by faith – but it remains a powerful sacrament of God’s ownership of those who choose to belong to Jesus.

We may be glad if our lives escape extreme suffering, hopefully remembering those who do not. Perhaps we can try to find the balance between accepting the risks of Christian living, and the joyful celebration of what we are given.

Enlightened?

Lockdown has reminded us – perhaps I should speak for myself – that we fail to get around to things all the time. It is not that I am too busy, because now there is less to do. Nor do I have nothing that I would like to get done. The fact remains that I haven’t done it.

Some of this is trivial, but not all. There are things I want to do and should do, which I haven’t done. Paul suggests in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 that his opponents are blinded by the “god of this age”. Their bitter opposition to his message and his ministry comes from a blindness to God’s will and activity. It is a blindness formed from compromise and failure, the “hardness of heart” which scripture sometimes speaks of, as repeated failure has dulled people’s perception of the way things are – at least, the way they are seen from heaven.

That’s a sobering thought. Could my failure to tidy up really be linked with an unwillingness to hear and respond to the gospel? It’s not as simple as that. (I don’t think I am pleading self interest here). But the “god of this world” is all around, encouraging greed, pride, harmful competitiveness, as well as the “it doesn’t really matter” and “why should I bother” inertia that lurks for many of us.

Paul talks about the light God separated from darkness at creation. The light of day and night, but also the light of understanding and confusion, of good moral judgement and bad. That light is seen not only in creation, but in Jesus. Is there a reference here to the “Transfiguration” – the time Jesus appeared illuminated in the presence of Moses and Elijah, as well as three disciples? We can’t be sure. But Jesus certainly has the light we need, the way to show up life as it really is when the deceptive adverts and the lazy carelessness are removed. And it is important that our life finds that external illumination if it is to succeed, and even more if it is to offer encouragement and direction pointers to those around.

The thought of being blinded is horrible. Most of us would rather lose other senses, even limbs, than live in a world of blur or darkness. Why is it, then, that we so easily fall to blindness to the things of God? It is worth thinking about – though not as an excuse to doing what we should be doing!

Creation, and Redemption

Creation Sunday – the second before Lent – takes us to Colossians 1:15-20. This is important, not just for what it says, (which is quite a lot!), but also for what it brings together. Some will want to focus on Redemption, looking at verse 20 and being reminded of the importance of Jesus death in our reconciliation with God. This is “core gospel”, always something to value, delight in, and pass on in worship and conversation.

But let me also point out what else is said. Verse 15 explains that Jesus shows us what God is like. After all the arguments about how God is greater than our minds can understand, arguments which are true, we can see as much as we can understand in the Son of God, living as the human Jesus.

Almost before we can hear that, verse 16 insists that the Son of God has a role in Creation. There is a significant detail, “all things have been created through him and for him“. (my italics). Creation remains important for our Redeemer. Creation is not just a prologue, a necessary introduction before the real story begins. It is part of God’s whole purpose and plan.

When we think about this, other details begin to attract our attention. If we go back to verse 20 where we started, we notice that the reconciliation the Son achieves is not only for humans. “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven,”. All things – more than people. Exactly how that works is beyond me, but it convinces me that Christian life can never be limited to a concern with Redemption (ours and other people’s) but extends to a care for Creation. We have good news about our Saviour, and we must encourage all who will to be good news for the health of our planet. Not either / or, but both and.

There is no shortage of organisations to help us with a Christian concern for the environment (A Rocha and EcoChurch come to mind, but many mission and relief agencies are becoming more aware of environmental casualties, as well as their own impact). What is more worrying is the apparent division between Christians who take this seriously as part of their faith, and those who see it strictly as an optional enthusiasm. This reading in Colossians makes clear that Creation and Redemption are both part of God’s plan, both demand attention and action, both are at the heart of the faith we need to practise. It’s not the only text on this subject, but let’s start here.