Fireworks

We like to do well, and to encourage others – celebrating family and friends’ achievements. But we can overdo it! A proper ambition can become stressful competition of the most unhelpful sort. What to one person is friendly rivalry and motivation is to another a load of expectation and the fear of failure.

Paul had a problem with the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). He found that they were preferring to listen to other teachers, whose example was harmfully competitive, perhaps with a financial motive. His reaction is not to enter the competition, but to “boast”. There seems no doubt that “the man” who had the revelations he talks about is himself, but he prefers to boast about his weakness, so that he can focus on the strength God supplies.

This may seem remote from our experience, yet it has importance. On the one hand, we are warned against being competitive in telling stories of our religious experience. There is no merit in “experiences” unless they lead on to a changed character, and a life of faithful and effective service – and that can be seen without publicity. At the same time, we are reminded of God’s help, to provide what is needed (yes, not always what we want, or even think we need!). The focus should be on God, not on self-dramatisation.

On the other hand, those who choose Christian leaders, whether deciding which group to join, or which person gets a job, need to beware. The qualities that matter do not include an inflated sense of self-importance, nor stories of dramatic spiritual experience. If there is faith, the experience will show in gifts and character. If there is only a desire for excitement or the unusual, there is danger.

Giving

How do you feel about about talking about money? Some don’t like it, others assume its fundraising and they’ll be asked to contribute. Yet Christians often hesitate to mention giving – as I am doing now. (And not only am I not asking for money at the moment, I make a point of seldom doing so.)

Money is personal, private. Yet so are most of the issues that faith deals with. – and many of them we need to talk about because they are controversial, Christians taking a view, even a stand, that is not generally agreed. More than that: we may dislike a world in which everything has a price, but the fact remains that Christians will be judged by whether their spending matches their faith talk.

So what can we learn from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15? Paul is reminding this congregation about a collection for poor Christians in Judea which they had started, but seems to have got “stuck”. He says some important things:

v8,9 the generosity of Jesus in becoming poor for love.

v13,14 a question of equality – perhaps reversing in future.

Giving is important, but it is important that giving should be an act of love (not like shutting up demanding children, or escaping the charity collector who makes you feel guilty). We give, because Jesus teaches us generosity, because we have enough to be able to give thanks to God by offering back some of his generosity to us.

There’s more, though. v12 talks about giving proportionally. I have often found people with the least to be generous. Problems are found with those who have good incomes, who try to give the minimum. Giving proportionally means a fixed part of your income – so more if / when you have more income, less if you earn less. You might like to make the calculation. How much do you (or your household) earn? If you add up your regular giving, what proportion is that of your income? The Old Testament expected 10%, my church organisation suggests 5% to church, allowing for other giving (and perhaps the social welfare aspects of taxation) – but it gets less than 3%, and suffers as a result.

This project of Paul’s was very important to the Church. It brought together Gentile and Jew, helping create a unity. It still does – and we should think about giving to Christian causes and charities. Nobody else, outside faith, can be expected to support them, yet they bring together brothers and sisters in Christ.

I haven’t asked you for money – I’m not going to. But please take seriously the Christian faith, which deals with many very personal areas of life, and has instructions (yes, instructions) about your view and use of money. You need to give some away, regularly, in proportion to your income. Doing so will help you to recognise the generosity of Jesus, and help you be part of his family.

Value

What’s the most valuable thing in the world? Gold, platinum, plutonium? Health, a brain that works? As Paul argues with the Church in Corinth (in 2 Corinthians 6:1-13), who rather prefer other teachers, he urges the value of grace, and the need to do something about it NOW. Not when we feel like it, or get around to it . . . but NOW.

That remains very relevant for us, as does

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; .

2 Corinthians 6:3,4

Some translations talk about “God’s servants” – as we all are; older translations use the word “ministers”, which again we all are, despite our different gifts and functions, as all serve to commend the gospel and make Jesus known.

Paul lists 9 trials in the next two verses – most of them we escape. But why did he have such a hard time? The same old reasons:

  • because people didn’t like being shown up
  • because the spiritual battle concentrates on opposition (who would you target if you were the devil? – the effective or the weak?)

We may not have such a dramatic list of hardships, but need to remember that both our taking the opportunity of God’s grace, and our service / ministry of sharing the good news of Jesus, will attract temptation, opposition, and unfair criticism. Paul’s response is not to withdraw, or appeal for pity. He understands what is going on, and finds fulfillment in the struggle.

in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;

2 Corinthians 6:6,7

define how it is to be done, and the next three verses see a paradox. The response is varied, but there are opposites in evidence. Yet this is nothing more than following the leadership of Jesus, who experienced the same acceptance / rejection, fame / infamy, acceptance / rejection.


This part of 2 Corinthians is very much a part of Paul’s struggle in the first century with the Church he founded, which tended to divide into groups and find other teachings more attractive than true Christian faith. Yet it remains appropriate for us. The appeal not to waste the grace of God, but to act now – that is vital when so many put off making decisions or commitments. The encouragement to serve by commending Jesus, even though it brings spiritual opposition – here is explanation and encouragement for the work we must set about together.

There is no comfort blanket offered here, only the most valuable thing in the world (free), and the way to use it successfully.

Weigh it up

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters (and we continue our reading of 2 Corinthians with chapter 5:6-17):

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6

It seems that Paul is thinking of death – whether because of his age, illness, or opposition which might secure his execution. If in the past he as assumed (and wrote as if) he would be alive at the return of Jesus in glory, he now wonders about the other alternative. Not a favourite activity, but sometimes useful

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Corinthians 5:9,10

This is not to deny that we are saved by faith through grace. The Christian who lives by his belief is safe, but our life work as Christians will be judged. Paul explained it in 1Corinthians 3, using the example of a builder working to build on the foundation of Jesus:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

For Paul, this is a motive for Christian evangelism. He then goes on to a great statement:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

2 Corinthians 5:14,15

We’re dead – not because of some disaster about to happen. Because Jesus died for us, we die to a selfish life. All life is now for him, under his direction. We don’t “get” this all at once. Even if we say we are committed, over time we discover there are still bits of ambition, or things we want for ourselves, that have nothing to do with Jesus – and do not fit in with a life now lived for the one who died for us. Our sense of judgement changes:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:16,17

What makes a person amusing or boring; what decides our leisure activities, choice of work (employment, or volunteering); a new perspective. More than that,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

2 Corinthians 5:20

We are not trying to make other people like us, nor even to introduce them to faith as we know it (so that they learn our worship, our church life). We are ambassadors – for Christ. The aim: that they meet Him, and come to live for him – but in the way He directs, according to their situation, ability, gifts . .

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters. But he has some very important things to say!

All Talk.

There’s an awful lot of talk. Even if we are relatively alone, the chatter of the older, broadcast media is now amplified by social media. Sadly, a great deal of it is bad tempered and complaining, even abusive. Christian communities ought to be better, kinder – but the theory is by no means always realised.

When Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1) “I believed; therefore I have spoken”, he takes this further. The Holy Spirit reminds us that the grace we have received should lead us to speak in thanksgiving and praise. It is not something we are good at! (Well, I speak for myself, you may make your own assessment of those among whom you live and worship). Embarrassment at being thought “pious” – or just “odd” – tends to keep us to the social norm.

That social norm tends to grumbling and complaint. Of course the sun doesn’t always shine, and there are always some people who really face crisis, pain and trauma. But it is all too easy to concentrate on the negative, compare our lives with those who have more, and not less, and feel hard done by. Paul urges us to get a sense of proportion. What we experience now – including the problems: physical, mental and spiritual – is temporary, as we move on to the good things God has prepared.

So, what shall we talk about? Can we re-educate ourselves, not to a false and unnatural pretence, but to a focus on the goodness of what God gives, now and in the future? Can we make ourselves more available to those who suffer by being content in our own situation? Can we be witnesses to grace in our present time and place?

Practical Christian Living and Trinity

People might object that thinking about God, especially in terms of the Trinity, takes away from the importance of the gospel message and Christian living – but in Romans 8:12-17 we see practical instruction in Christian life with an account of the three Persons of the One God.

Paul continues the argument that it is no use doing as you want and feeding your own ambitions and appetites (even if that is to be religious or “good”). That way lies disaster. The alternative is a life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit, freely given to believers. In this way they become children of God – we might say “God the Father”, from whom every family is named (Ephesians 3:15). The ancient world knew about adoption, and took it very seriously.

In this way, as children of our heavenly Father, we share the benefits of Christ, the natural Son, and are given a place in that family.. Paul has been describing Christian life, lived not by moral effort, but by grace. It makes constant use of forgiveness to bring and keep us in relationship with the three: Father, Spirit and Son. The Trinitarian language is almost incidental and quite natural. At the same time, the effect is to create a life, supported in these different ways, but never torn between the different persons offering support.

Thinking of God can be confusing – our minds are too small. What we are given is a glimpse of wonder, to encourage praise, worship and thanksgiving. At the same time, we are told how this God brings us to share in relationship, both with God and with others. Relationships which we often get wrong, but which imitate the wonder of divine love.

The Holy Spirit

On the Day of Pentecost many will turn their thoughts to the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. But we are also given Romans 8:22-27 to consider.

Paul speaks of vision and hope – not a hope of going back to some former “golden age”, even the events of that first outpouring of the Spirit on Jesus followers. He recognises that we have not “arrived”, that we live in a situation still incomplete. Our present life is not the final stage, and we look forward. Vision is always important, but the content of the vision also matters.

Paul encourages us to “our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies”, that is the full experience of God’s love and transformation which will come after our life on earth. This isn’t all there is, and however hard we look to anticipate God’s Kingdom, in our relationships, our service and our worship, there is more and better to come. We can be confident of that because of what God has promised.

The second thing is that, even though we don’t really know what we should be praying for, the Spirit prays for us and guides. It is another source of confidence. We are not guided only by human plans and projects, but by God the Holy Spirit. We can join in with that prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is a well known phrase, which acquires greater meaning, as do phrases like “in Jesus name”, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Praying in tongues is also an action which helps offer our obedience and encourages us to take direction.

Pentecost added a new celebration to the festival of harvest and the giving of the Law when the Holy Spirit arrived so dramatically. We rejoice in that, but our Spirit given vision looks forward, to what is yet to come in God’s mercy and grace.

Confidence

Confidence has taken quite a knock in the last year. For some of us, there is hope that we are emerging from the worst of the Covid disruption. But our assumptions about “normal” life have been shaken. Do we become cynical about everything? We can’t. We still have to make a living, be governed, and make decisions. To make decisions you take advice, even if you wonder about it.

“We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.”

1John 5:9

Its good to have something more positive to talk about, (this week we read 1 John 5:9-13) and Jesus is certainly that. The focus of God’s care for humanity, he arrives after a long build up. The Old Testament journeys through creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, entry to the Promised Land, exile and return, . . And there are documents too: Law, Prophets, Writings – All point to Jesus: Messiah, Servant, Prophet, and much more. In his 40 days of appearance after the Resurrection he has explained the scriptures. Now, with his ascension, there is an ending (more to come – next week).

John in his letter explains how Jesus has given evidence of God, and of how God has spoken through Jesus of a way to Life.

“Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”

1 John 5:10

This is more than an enthusiasm. Belief moves on to confidence as we put it into practice, and begin to see God at work. We can always doubt it, but that is still a vitally important step in the growth of a Christian life. We find it odd to think we might be judged for unbelief (look at the next verses), and yet if you know the story (and this is only for those who do) you must respond: favourably, to learn more, find life, and serve, or sinfully, not to be bothered; to resist a claim on time and energy.

John writes to Christian believers, not that they are perfect, but that believing and following Jesus is the key which gives life, now and eternally. They know, as we do, that not only are there many who have not heard, but some who are deaf by choice, and so put themselves under judgement. His focus is not there, but on the Word of God. God’s Word to us is a human being, and much more. To have a trust in Jesus is to have much more, and the confidence that he will lead us and keep us safe in all our adventures with him.T

Does belief matter?

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

That is odd – We tend to separate belief and behaviour. Believe what you like, behave as we tell you – like everyone else. John does not agree, as becomes clear in 1 John 5:1-6. He is very concerned about behaviour – love and keeping God’s commands, but sees belief as key. So – what difference is this belief going to make?

It is not difficult to imagine that seeing and hearing Jesus would have lead John the apostle to admiration, enough to motivate time and attention for learning. Perhaps for many followers now, that’s about it. Others will come to obedience out of fear. God is God, active and real, in charge, and will eventually require an accounting of all of us. I’d better behave, and live as someone whose life will be inspected. I obey because I’m frightened of the consequences of not obeying, here and hereafter. It’s real, it motivates (if not very well), – but it’s not what God intended.

But if Jesus is the Messiah, God is doing something important – and wonderful. Yes, we might admire Jesus, for his dedication, his non-violence, or other qualities. Yes, we might want to give thanks for his achievement. But increasingly we are drawn in, and (if we let it) God changes us. We obey because we want to be part of what God is doing. We prefer his vision to any other. We want to see the victory of Jesus won today. This is a different sort of obedience! Let’s look again at what John is saying:

“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God”

1 John 5:1

because belief has a big effect on behaviour!

“and whoever loves a father loves his child also. This is how we know that we love God’s children: it is by loving God and obeying his commands.”

1 John 5:1b,2

If we really think that God was answering all those promises about a Great King in Jesus, then you have got to love it, and be drawn in to join others who are working with it, to apply it now. We don’t obey so much because we fear the consequences of disobedience, but because we love what God has done and is doing. The way to get things done well, is God’s way (described by his commandments).

every child of God is able to defeat the world. And we win the victory over the world by means of our faith. Who can defeat the world? Only the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

1 John 5:4b,5

So, are we invincible superheroes? No. But we are taking on the world and winning, as we live by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, and go a different way to many. Belief – belief in Jesus – is the vital ingredient in a life that loves and wins.

Many won’t believe that. But you might.

Loving truly

True love – or perhaps more accurately, the failings of untrue love – has been the subject of more songs and stories than have ever been counted. How are we to judge the true from the false? John has a no-nonsense approach when he says “ This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (The start of this week’s reading, 1 John 3:16-24).

It is hard to deny that this is a compelling demonstration of love and, as the earlier verses of the chapter have argued, one that should provoke a response. Imitation is a form of admiration. What we worship will shape our lives and characters. So we are told that our love should reach out to those in need.

We might want to use the excuse that our offering is so insignificant compared to the needs we see on television news and documentaries. It is easy to forget that the earliest Christians lived closer to hunger and homelessness than we do, yet were known to be generous. If modern communications make us rapidly aware of disasters and shortages on the other side of the world, they also enable an informed and professional response. We do have a responsibility to give, generously and repeatedly, and to do it in the most effective ways we can find. We need to make sure that our giving is a significant proportion of what we have available.

Our response to those in need should never be limited to charitable giving, however. We need to be informed, and to use our votes and our campaigning weight to encourage medium and longer term answers. At the same time, we are faced by a climate emergency. We can lobby, and give, but we also need to change our personal behaviour to reduce our impact on the environment and encourage others by our example to do the same.

Even that isn’t enough. The needs will change from time to time and place to place. At the moment racism is in the spotlight, and needs us to affirm the value of every life. There are issues of housing provision, children denied a secure family upbringing, modern slavery, unemployment – and I will have missed several. We cannot be closely involved with every issue, but need to deal with those closest to us, and to deal with them within the love of God. That does not want to make the wrong suffer, nor to expose people to shame. Rather, it looks for the restoration of a proper order, with relationships restored and life more nearly as it should be. It looks to the Kingdom of God, where God rules, and we are able to enjoy our place and our life within God’s love.