Category Archives: Year C

Aslan

When CS Lewis wrote “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” the lion was a key figure. Friendly, so that the children trusted him, he was never tame, still less a stuffed toy or little brother. The Lion was powerful, different, and while not frightening, at least awesome.

As we read Hebrews 12:18-29, we find first an account of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. It was a fearful experience, even for Moses, and more so for the people. Not only were they barred from the quaking, smoking mountain, they even had to keep livestock away. The God who was giving the commandments was not one to be treated lightly.

And we know better? I think not. The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that the Christian experience is different. Jesus brings us a new Covenant, and teaches us more fully about God. But there is no suggestion that God may be treated lightly. Quite the opposite. As verse 25 points out, it is even more necessary to take to heart what is given us from heaven. We can rightly be thankful that the kingdom given to us is secure, but careful that the God we deal with is “a consuming fire” – never to be played with, always respected.

CS Lewis was surely right in the characterisation of Aslan. A lion, a wonderful companion and good friend, but a terror to the enemies of love and justice.

Faith

I wonder what “Faith” means to you? Faith is sometimes thought of as religious opinion; I’m sure you would go beyond that. We might talk vaguely of having faith in a government, school or doctor – that’s better ( it adds confidence to opinion) but does not have the idea of the trust which makes faith the basis of action.; that’s vital, as the stories we read today in Hebrews 11 and 12 show (the reading is Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2).

Faith is about what you do: it made the Israelites able to cross the Red Sea. They were pretty frightened, and it needed God’s action and Moses steadiness – but it was faith that made them listen to the instructions and then do them. They crossed the sea, and escaped the Egyptians, but they had to wait by the shore and then walk. That illustrates a point. Faith is not so much about being emotionally worked up and certain and not able to think of other possibilities. It is probably less important to have “great faith” than to be sure that the faith you have is in a great God, and is put into practice. So Abraham had to leave, travel, sacrifice Isaac. He didn’t earn favour, but learnt to look forward.

Faith is not always about doing the obvious. Moses had plenty of critics (and some mutinies). Joshua must have faced questions as he led the people in silence round the walls of Jericho. He may have shared those questions, but he had the faith to do as he was told, with dramatic results. Be careful! Faith is not following every daft idea that comes into your head. If you feel called to do something odd, check carefully and involve other people. Often the great temptation is to think we know best! Later, there are sad stories of those who thought they could improve on God’s instructions – Saul is an example, saving the “banned” cattle.

Faith is not irrational, but it is a decision, taken on the basis of what we know of God, to do what he commands, even when we don’t understand why or how it will work out. Moses had no rational chance against Pharaoh and his army; and yet, with some human co-operation and in spite of human opposition from others, his purposes succeed and the slaves go free. Human responsibility remains.

Faith can lead to uncomfortable experiences. Gideon and Barak both won important battles, but they were very uncertain, and needed a lot of persuading to take the lead. We are told that some won great victories, but others were lead by faith to suffering and death. And note that many were not “natural heroes”, faith changed them. Some we can identify. Jeremiah was mocked and imprisoned, Isaiah by tradition sawn in two, Zechariah stoned, and a number during Maccabean persecution (c66BC) tortured -2Mac6,7.

But that is not really the point. Why would we trust a God, if he might lead us into situations like that? Because its worth it. Even that sort of trouble is worthwhile if we then end up on God’s side. And we have an advantage that none of those examples did – we live after Jesus. We know what he endured, and where it lead him. We have even more reason to accept that a cross may be the way to heaven.

So faith is a belief, and a confidence, but always needing to be put into practice. These people, examples of faith, often knew less than we do of God’s plans, but they acted on what they knew; sometimes it lead them to strange and unlikely actions, but this was no madness – they were proved right by the results. Sometimes faith led them into suffering and difficulty, but again, it was not without reason in the purposes of God.

Which is all very interesting, and historical, until we realise that the time for faith is now. Don’t wait until you can see everything – you never will (on earth). If times are easy, faith will keep us from laziness. If times are hard, faith will keep us going. If times are confused, faith will steer us in the right direction. Faith, in a great God, is something to act on.

Abraham ?

The letter to Hebrews (today we read Hebrews 11:1-3 and 11:8-16 or all of Hebrews 11:1-16) wants to explain “faith”, and so talks about Abraham. Here is a man of faith. Not faith as a dogmatic, stubborn, closed mind, living in an imaginary world. Abraham sets out on a journey because he trusts God, trusts that God has called him to travel. His faith is that trust – to go forward, take risks, (even to leave what he knows and follow God’s promise). Again, when promised a son by his wife Sarah, he trusts God, and the promise becomes a reality. It is through this faith, this trust, that he becomes such a key part of God’s story and the working out of God’s plan. He is remembered by 3 faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim.

Perhaps we need to look closely to see how this works, and might transfer to our lives and experience. It is not about blind obedience – Abraham doesn’t live by rules: do this, don’t do that. No, he lives close enough to God to hear, and when he hears, to have the confidence to obey, and see it work out.

That’s exciting, and a bit scary. But it seems to be where a good deal of Christian life is. Think about when you have needed God’s help, and received it. Think about what God is asking of you and of people around you now. It is not all clearly mapped out, there are risks – of getting it wrong, making mistakes, looking stupid (or worse). But there is also a chance to be a part of what God is doing!

Back to Abraham. He doesn’t see it all happen (we are talking c 1800BC!), but he sees God working, and looks forward, even beyond his lifetime. So, will you look forward and work for the future, or only back? Have you the faith to be on God’s journey, looking for the promises, and the reassurances of being on the right track? The gospel (Luke 12:32-40) paints a picture of some of the blessings given to those who travel that way. But we still have to set out, and keep going.

Art thou peculiar?

You have probably heard the criticism that “Some Christians are so heavenly minded, they are no earthly use!” Certainly you will not go far without finding some who talk a different, “religious” language. It has many forms, but they are all a long way from ordinary conversation, and have the effect of alienating everyday people.

At first sight, what Paul has to say to the Colossians (today’s reading is Colossians 3:1-11) might seem to point in this direction: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”. Indeed, he goes on to list a number of things which have to be “put to death” – fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). Isn’t this the negative, judgemental religion that is often criticised and avoided?

Perhaps not. These may be common temptations, but they are hardly things we would want to encourage. “Let’s have more greed” might please the advertisers, but most of us would not be in favour. In fact, these are things we would be happy to avoid (especially if it were easier).

Paul is talking about the consequences of faith, and about the new power at work in Christian believers and the new motivation driving their transformed lives – the Holy Spirit. The new life is only possible because of Jesus, and it is a good life – something we perhaps do not emphasise enough?

As you read on, notice that there are not only things to get rid of, but also things to enjoy and celebrate. Truth is important, and a key to good relationships for family and community life. The other thing mentioned in this section is the breaking down of the barriers of race and wealth – again, an important issue today, as well as for the Colossians.

I’d like to think that Christians have a “heavenly mindedness” which makes them all the more practical and useful on earth. Most of us probably have a way to go yet – we are still being worked on – but the transformation and the newness of life need to be real, not just theoretical.

Managing your “isms”

How are your “isms”? I don’t mean rheumatism (though I hope that’s not a problem!), but the human systems and theories which sometimes threaten to take over our lives. They can be political: conservatism, liberalism, socialism. Or religious: catholicism, evangelicalism, liberalism, pentecostalism. All have something good to offer, but there is danger if the “ism” becomes more important than the life you should be living with its help.

Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae (a place now in Turkey). We are reading Colossians 2:6-15. They had 2 problems. One was a group of Jewish believers, who wanted Christians to follow every detail of Judaism. The other was a group who wanted to mix Christian faith with other religions and philosophies. They dabbled in astrology and the occult, and talked about special exercises and disciplines to achieve “spiritual maturity”.

Paul isn’t having any of it. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving“. Christian life begins in receiving Christ as Lord. I hope you understand that it still does. There is no true version of Christian faith which does not put Jesus in charge – of me, my life, ambitions, morality, money . . .

And having started in that way, we go on “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” – there’s your “isms”, and the danger of being kidnapped by them.

Against the force of “hollow and deceptive philosphy, which depends on human tradition” (NIV), Paul insists on Christ ” For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Christ, in charge. Christ supreme over all spiritual forces. Christ who had set us free, when we were helpless.

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

Of course these false teachers would have been much more flattering than Paul, with great sales pitches. But they threatened the gospel – the good news, about a Father who loves us, and encourages us to ask (for the good of all in the Kingdom, not our personal advantage).

Isn’t it strange how people are much the same, despite 2000 or more years of cultural and technical change? We still so easily get taken over by what is popular with our friends. We still invent new “isms”. Much of that is fine, if Jesus is Lord, and our lives are built on that loyalty and on obedience to Him. But “isms” so easily take over. Be careful, and mind how you manage your “isms”!

Spiritually Advanced?

Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul wrote a letter to a small town in modern Turkey – and it still has something to teach (it supplies Sunday readings for 4 weeks!). Colossae: Founded on trade in sheep wool – fleeces dyed purple with a cyclamen based dye. The Church, with Gentile and Jewish believers, was established by Epaphras, probably himself converted in Ephesus. But there was a problem in the Church in Colossae; they were getting their faith wrong, in a way which mattered. We won’t worry too much about how they wanted to improve on the gospel, but let’s look at what Paul said in Colossians 1:15-28.

First, 1:15-20. Its all about Jesus. Jesus is how we see what God is like – is God remote, severe, judgemental, or is God a pushover, a sugar–daddy? Well, the answer (to those and lots of other ideas) is – look at Jesus. Get to know the stories about him. He’s friendly (to all sorts of people), very human, but also powerful, and has deep understanding and sympathy.

For the Colossians, Jesus might have been the start, but they wanted to “improve” this faith in one way or another. Paul isn’t having that. Jesus continues in charge, superior to the powers of heaven. It is Jesus who died to set us free, it is Jesus who is head of the Church, the source of its unity – an important point, because of division. [And whether you are a new Christian, or have been in Christian things for years, you don’t get away from needing Jesus, and the forgiveness he gives].

Then, verses 21-23 talk about how that affects the Colossians. Their past had been one of alienation – led astray by the false values of a corrupt society (does that sound familiar?). But Jesus (yes, focus on him again) had intervened to set them free by his death. They are not being allowed to get away from the physical – because of their delight in the metaphysical and “spiritual”, Paul ties them down to the actual, bodily death of Jesus. Their future depends on their holding on to their initial commitment to the gospel they once heard and accepted.

After the central and continuing importance of Jesus, and God’s purpose for the Colossians, Paul talks about his own role. He sees himself as entrusted with a message – not some secret knowledge to be passed on to initiates, but the gospel taught to believers openly. That is your message, too. If you know what Jesus did and does, don’t keep quiet about it. The glory is not some religious experience, but the presence of Christ among believers – the new life they share, and in which they grow in holiness and service.

There are lots of people who need to know these things: Jesus has to come first – in Church, in my life, in the way I do faith. There are many round us who forget, or don’t know, that without Jesus death for us, we are lost in the false values of a corrupt society. And there are those, even in religion, who do not remember the responsibility we have of sharing the gospel message, and living and working for it – even when that means suffering.

Most Important!

Paul writes to Colossae, a place he has never visited, with a church founded by someone else. He’s heard that things are going wrong – there is a group whose teaching is seriously different and dangerous – it has all sorts of things: a bit of Jewishness, claims to “advance” beyond apostolic Christianity, mystical teaching about angels, and an “in-club” exclusivism.

So what does Paul have to say to all this, the threat to his teaching, and the true gospel? (You might want to read Colossians 1:1-5 now, the first part of the reading Colossians 1:1-14). Paul doesn’t seem as worried, or as negative, as I was! He wants to give thanks, and picks out faith (one commentator suggests – “Christian confidence”) and love, based on the hope of heaven.

He seems to put his hope for their future in these things, rather than a careful campaign against the false teachers. He will have more to say about them and their teaching, but there’s no panic. This is more important.

When we get to verses 9 and 10, his prayer is not for victory over the others, but for knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and understanding. Is this so that they can put other people in their place? No. It is so that they can live properly, and do good deeds.

Paul really seems to think this is most important, as if it brought some protection, some benefit. And there’s one more thing. He talks about rescue, being set free, having sins forgiven. And he says God has done that! His opponents would have said that people needed “spiritual development” or some such thing. Paul says – the important things are simple and positive: God has set us free, given forgiveness in Jesus (as Epaphras said). So they (and we, overhearing this conversation by letter) should take advantage, and hold onto that!

Faith, love, the assurance that even when it is hard to do right, its value is never lost in heaven, where all will be safe – these are the imp things. So why am I reading bits of Colossians 1? Because I too easily see the negatives, and worry about how to react. What I find here is a reminder of the simple goodness and reliability of the gospel.

Accept what God has done, and offered you by faith – be sure you accept, and have confidence! Trust God (always more than “people” or “plans”), and love one another. Of course it will sometimes go wrong, but those things are so important!

Boasting?

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” is a strange statement. We are used to boasting, and more elaborate ways of “showing off”, and find it normal for the rich and successful, for celebrities, and sometimes would-be celebrities. But this is Paul, in the last chapter of his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 6:1-16 or 6:7-16).

Paul is making a point, being annoyed by those who have tried to lead the Galatian Christians away from the gospel he preached to them. He insists on emphasising Jesus. And so he refuses to state his own claims to respect and fame. He points them to the centre of faith – and it’s not in themselves, or any other teacher.

But I wonder how we react? We could dismiss this line as a bit of religious jargon. If, instead, we take it seriously, there is a challenge. What am I pleased with in my life? What do I think I have done well? What are my successes and strong points? Could I answer “Jesus and his death” to any of these, let alone all of them?

I am not suggesting that we have no good points or successes! But the overwhelming importance of God’s grace, of being rescued and loved, rather than achieving . . This takes some thinking through. Looking in that direction, rather than at our own goodness, will help motivate our work for those who most need our “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Similarly, a thankfulness for what has been done for us will help avoid a return to selfish living, and the danger of becoming “weary in doing what is right”. Perhaps we need to think of a way of saying, in jargon free language, “the best thing about me – is not me”.

Preserving Freedom

Paul has argued through Galatians against a group who wanted to impose full Jewish Law and practice on those who became believers in Jesus from outside the Jewish community. He insists that faith, and not obeying the detailed instructions of the Old Testament Law, is what makes a person free and right with God.

It might sound very remote in the twenty first century, if it were not for the difficulty we have today as Christians understanding how Christian life is supposed to work. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Clearly it would be terrible, having escaped from the life of a slave, to be returned to it again. But what is Christian freedom, and how is it to be used, and indeed preserved?

Today’s reading (Galatians 5:1 and 13-25) jumps from that verse to explain the difference between a selfish life, dominated by the indulgence of human appetites, and a free life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. We have become expert at justifying what we want, having our own way, and imposing on others – yet know that this seldom ends well. What we have to learn is how thankfulness for a life set free can lead us to love and serve, and to cultivate the “fruit of the Spirit”. These are gifts we cannot obtain by self-discipline, but that God will develop in us as we allow them to grow.

Freedom can be lost! When Paul sounds as if he speaks from experience, we can echo his concerns. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. ” This leads back to the selfish life, enslaved by human desires. The alternative? “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Independent?

Do you like being supervised? I imagine not. It doesn’t really matter whether we are being formally assessed (at work, in a medical test, even in sport), or just have someone looking critically over our shoulder – it makes for stress, if not resentment.

It should not be too difficult to understand Paul (Galatians 3:23-29), when he speaks of the Old Testament Law as a “guardian”. Yes, the Law tells us what God is like, and how our lives should go to fit God’s intentions and our purpose. But like a schoolteacher, it can limit our freedom, and doesn’t actually make us good at learning. We are reminded that children in the first century were sometimes under the control of a slave, who made sure they behaved and did their lessons, even though the slave had no status himself. The slave was hardly a friend, no matter how properly he did his job.

So, Paul suggests, becoming Christians is like gaining the freedom of family members. No longer subject to strict control, we share with other believers the equal status our faith releases. In this letter, Paul has been concerned to reject the demands of some who claimed that non-Jewish converts to Christ had to observe all the Jewish Law and customs. He insists (as did the Council of Jerusalem, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in Acts 15) that while Gentile believers in Christ should be concerned to maintain fellowship with Jewish believers, they do not have to live under Jewish regulations.

The freedom of the Christian is still important, and easily lost to judgmental attitudes or old fashioned habits. Yes, we need to understand how our lives are to be like Jesus’, showing the effect of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Old Testament remains important for us to understand God’s interactions and relationships with humans through the ages. But no, we don’t have to follow endless restrictions and traditions. Getting it right is difficult, but important.