Fellowship

I want to talk about fellowship – because it is a key thing that makes Christian groups different. It is often confused with friendship, or with a cosy atmosphere, fellowship is both more and less. Friendship involves knowing people, choosing to spend time together, or at least in communication (perhaps by social media), because of things in common – activities, interests, attitudes, taste in music, food, . . . Fellowship is not about liking another person or group – it is about sharing faith, or in Christian terms, commitment to Christ. So I may have fellowship with those of very different backgrounds, cultures, experience, and may not even share a language. But I share a common obedience, and will share heaven!

So Jesus calls disciples, not just to do the work (be sent out), but to be with him: learning, including learning from being together as disciples. Today (we read 1 John 1) the writer talks about the experience of faith “ so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.

The word comes again, as we realise fellowship is not something to be turned on and off: “ If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” verse 6 and the answer: 1 John 1:7 “but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

What makes a Christian group different? There is nothing wrong with other groups, for work, sport, social action – but a Christian starts with Christian fellowship, and goes on with the direction and strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that happens formally, sometimes it is much hidden. Fellowship is not a “natural” thing, like the attraction felt by some friends. We have to work at it, with people not like us, for the sake of our shared loyalty to one Lord, Jesus Christ, and our owing everything to him.

Ending well.

How do you “round off” a year, or a letter, or anything else for that matter? Paul seems to have understood the need for summary and suitable conclusion at the end of his letter to the Romans. (We read Romans 16:25-27 today – the very last words of the letter). Perhaps he is anticipating that it will be read as Christians gather for worship, for this has something of the feel of a service ending – and makes a very good one!

Paul is never going to be content with just repeating a convention. These words are full of thanksgiving, first for God’s ability to establish, or to make these believers strong in their faith. Of course they may need it – the life of the Christian community goes on, and will face both individual and corporate challenges. At the end of 2020, many Churches will have been shaken by the Covid pandemic, but the same God is able to strengthen us and make us stand firm.

The Christian group in Rome was “mixed”, including both Jewish believers and those of a non-Jewish background. Some of the tensions between the groups are reflected in the letter. Paul’s conclusion emphasises and summarises his point: this inclusion of both is part of the gospel message, and, though once mysterious, had been prophesied.

All of that – the argument of the letter, the working out of the gospel Paul has written to explain and proclaim, all is for the glory of God. It is not to build Paul’s reputation, let alone his wealth. It is not about the status of the faith community. It is all with the purpose of bringing glory to God through Jesus Christ. That is a challenge for every Christian and every congregation, but if it puts us in our place, it also gives us focus and hope. We are not called to “success” but to live in a way that brings glory to God.

To that we can say “Amen”, and end a chapter.

Rejoice! (properly)

How can you always be joyful? – isn’t it insensitive when suffering and tragedy abound? What if you don’t feel like it? – don’t you have a right to be miserable?

Perhaps we ought to look at the context of Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. Looking back through the letter, there has been talk of:

  • the Life and Faith of the Thessalonians
  • Paul’s Work (well, God’s really); his desire to visit again
  • and in chapter 4, the consequences: A Life that Pleases God

What does God want? – well, very much what we want in our better moments: Love, peace, mutual service, holiness of life. So if they, and we, have absorbed that, we should be Ready. Ready for – The Lord’s Coming. And the words we read today are at the end of chapter 5 and the letter.

So “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances”. It’s not insensitive in context. Don’t “bounce” on the miserable – but help put their problems in context. Face death in the context of resurrection, pain and hurt in the context of incarnation and healing.

No, you don’t have a right to be miserable! All you have is given by God (sometimes spoiled by your misuse – but there is forgiveness). At least some sorts of misery imply that God isn’t up to his job – he’s given the wrong tools, doesn’t understand, doesn’t know. (Yes, there are other sorts of misery. We can all be overcome for a time by tragedy, and cannot offer an easy solution to mental illness, but – do I have a right to choose to be miserable, NO, as far as it is a choice, I don’t).

Be joyful. How, if I don’t feel it? By giving thanks, by not restraining the Holy Spirit, by avoiding evil. This isn’t a forced Hollywood smile, a backslapping heartiness, or the suggestion that real Christians must be extravert personalities. But it is a serious instruction.

“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances.” Joy, even at times of difficulty, is a blessing. Thanksgiving can be carefully practised until it becomes a habit. So – Praise God! not as a cliché, but as a deliberate decision, especially at times of stress. Thank God! even when you have to think quite hard what you can thank him for.

The lives the Thessalonian Christians led were certainly no easier, more comfortable or more secure than ours, – perhaps they needed these instructions, but so do we. As a preparation for the coming of Jesus, and as a serious part of our faith, let’s set out to do this:

“Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus.”

1 Th 5:16-18

Urgent Patience.

I suppose many of us wander between enthusiasms. Earlier this year climate crisis was in the news and attracting our attention (quite rightly!). Then the Covid pandemic edged it out of our attention, and now the possibilities of a vaccine feature alongside the varying estimates of what Christmas will be like.

The thought of Christmas might remind us that we aren’t yet ready. Present planning, card sending, and arranging family meetings are one thing, being ready for the coming of Jesus another. This pre-Christmas season of Advent is not just about preparing a celebration of Jesus’ birth, but of reminding ourselves of the promise that he will return, bringing an end to the world we know, with judgement, accountability, and the full arrival of the Kingdom he began on earth.

As we read 2 Peter 3:8-15, we are reminded not to get impatient. If some Christians in Peter’s time expected Jesus return rapidly, they needed to remember that the delay allowed time for repentance to some who needed it – and God was wanting to see them saved. We face the same temptation – “Will anything ever change? Don’t I just need to fit in with the way things are in the world around?”, with a firm answer that it is not the people around us who set our ambitions and standards, but God. The whole idea of Jesus return, and our readiness to give an account of our lives, and our use of all God’s gifts, is important and has an urgency – we are not promised any further warnings!

The urgency is real – this needs to be a priority now, not “when I get around to it” or “when life is less busy”. At the same time, we need patience. God does not have to explain the timing to us. If Jesus’ return happens after the end our our life, we have no complaint. Quite the opposite, we will have had more time to practise, more time to see the benefits and blessings of a life lived as a disciple, learning the ways of love and faithfulness. More time to advertise and recommend them. There is no place for panic, or frantic confusion. What we need is, yes, urgent patience. Urgent – being ready must be a priority, and move to the top of the “to do” list, but patience, to take time to learn, to repent, and to go on repenting and reforming all the areas the Holy Spirit highlights for our prayerful attention.

Really?

At first sight, the opening of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:3-9) is very strange. Paul knows full well that there are lots of problems in that congregation. In the following chapters he will touch on the various cliques dividing the group, on his own position as a leader, sexual immorality, litigation, confusion about Christian status, freedom, discipline, complacency, worship, the resurrection . . . We can just imagine the sort of article a local paper might write now if it got wind of half those goings on!

Of course, this was Corinth, the seaport where everything happened, and the Christians were new to this faith, and only just exploring what it meant for them. They weren’t a well educated or wealthy group.

Paul isn’t joking when he talks about the grace they have been given, or the fact that they “do not lack any spiritual gift as [they] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” They may still need to learn how to use some of those gifts. Certainly they have a good deal to learn about what Christian behaviour involves. But they have been given so much, and Paul is quite honest as he gives prayerful thanks for what has begun. – Not only begun, for he has confidence that a faithful God will continue, and bring them “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

That is probably the point for us, too. We can look at the list of failures in that ancient church, but may be less ready to face the failings of our own! If we were really such good examples of Christian life, would there not be more questions – that is positive questions, from those outside who want to know about the sources of our hope, love and faith? The reality is that every church organisation, each congregation, is less than perfect. But as we work and pray through that, is it not also true that we have been given grace, for which we might properly be thankful? Is it not also true that “we do not lack any spiritual gift”?

Yes, we might like to draw up a list of what we would like. But do we actually believe God has left us without anything we need for Stage 1 of our progress from this point in faith and time? Or are we just refusing to pray and see the first steps of our way forward, a way which may be less familiar in a post-Covid world?

Paul gave hearty thanks for what God had done and was doing for a poor and struggling church, at the same time as they were causing him some anxiety and problems. We also live in a world of less than perfect Christians and congregations, but can we give thanks for what God has done, is doing – and is now ready to lead us forward from?

Power!

Most people do not show their best character when they are threatened. To be – or to feel – powerless is unpleasant and difficult. That is true spiritually, too, so it would be nice to say “Just do this”. That would be misleading. Yet Paul has some answers, even though he writes from Prison. (We are reading Ephesians 1:15-23).

Paul, writing while in prison, can still say, “Thank God for you” 1.16. And he wants them to understand something – this is his prayer – and my point: Paul prays the Ephesians will v18 know “How rich are the wonderful blessings God promises his people”, and also
“how very great is his power at work in us who believe”
so there is power.

What power​? It is not always obvious, and we have to be careful not to fool ourselves. What power is there? Verse 20 the same as raised Christ from death, and “seated him at his right side in the heavenly world” – the position of authority.

It needs understanding, because to many then (and now), Jesus was a loser who got himself crucified. You should know better than that, but see the complication. This is not “superhero” power, for selfish display. This is the power of God to reconcile, heal, bring about a better answer. It can be so well hidden that we miss it, but it is available, and should be used.

So we are not powerless, but have the greatest possible power. It’s just that we have to understand, and learn to use it! There’s a footnote. Christ is given all power, and is given to the Church. Do you see the Church as a place of power? Not in its politics or failures, but how about it’s healing, it’s forgiving, its redirecting people? That can be powerful, when we learn to apply it properly!

Is there an End?

Where will it all end? – and will there be tears? The early followers of Jesus came to believe he was the promised coming King, the Messiah. He spoke of God’s Kingdom. When he met opposition and slander, they found his acceptance of suffering, and then of a criminal’s death, difficult. His resurrection, and the Old Testament prophecies (not least Isaiah’s Suffering Servant), helped them to see it all as part of God’s plan to save.

So the Christians met, worshipped, and wondered – Where would it all end? It is a question, not only for their times, but for ours. It has been echoed by many in times of war, persecution, and suffering. Destruction, death and disaster add weight to it. What can we hope for? What is the point? Political or economic insecurity adds to the doubt, but Christians ought to have some answers settled. As we remember the consequences of conflict elevated into war, what hope of peace, of justice?

Christians remember Jesus identification of John the Baptist as Elijah, and understand the “Day of the Lord” as the day Jesus returns with power for judgement. That day is mentioned in Matthew 24 and 25, at the Ascension, and in 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5, (and today we read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) among other places. The language is pictorial, the main theme clear: Jesus return brings to an end this time of uncertainty and conflict. God will rule, and his enemies be disarmed and judged.

In the Old Testament (we read an example in Zephaniah, but it starts with Amos, and is reflected in many prophets) a popular idea of the Day of the Lord – when “our God” would come to defeat “our enemies” – is turned round. Amos insists that God is not impressed by the unfaithfulness of his people, and the Day of his Coming would bring judgement on them, as well as on others. (so Zephaniah 1:12 “I will punish the people who are self-satisfied and confident, who say to themselves, ‘The LORD never does anything, one way or the other.'” ) By the time of Malachi, the last words of our Old Testament: “But before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

When? We don’t know. 1Thessalonians 5:1,2 Suddenly and unexpectedly; but that is not to say we are unprepared. Paul speaks of a thief in the night. You don’t know when – but if you know he is coming, you can be ready. Valuables hidden or secure, doors firmly locked, people safe. We don’t know when, but we are to be ready. “We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1Thessalonians 5:8

The Kingdom of God – his rule of justice and love, is something great, to be looked forward to and celebrated (at least by those who try already to live its life). The Day it comes and replaces all opposition is beyond our imagining, and unlikely to be uncontested. We need to be ready,

Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

Bleak?

In Wales, we are half way through 2 weeks of Covid lockdown; England are just about to start 4 weeks of staying at home; other places also struggle. It is hard in many ways, and for once we share in difficult times.

Christians have to be realistic, and this is not an easy situation – but neither is it the full story. November 1st is often kept as All Saints day. Having survived Halloween, we turn to celebrate and give thanks for the less famous of God’s people. Revelation 7:9-17 is the fuller of the New Testament passages set for the day, and it has an encouraging picture to offer. Here is a picture of God’s kingdom, with much to celebrate and much to look forward to:

  • here is a crowd of people united. It’s not that they are alike: they are of many backgrounds, races, languages; but you might say they are singing from the same hymnsheet. They have a common purpose which makes their differences insignificant. Their focus is God, and together, happily, they worship
  • God is at the centre. Not because he insists it be so, nor because he is some sort of successful dictator. He is recognised for his love and faithfulness. This crowd know how he has healed, forgiven, and brought them together in a wonderful way which has given freedom, not taken it away.
  • And then there is the comfort and reassurance of the closing verses

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Revelation 7:15b-17

This is God’s kingdom, which we want to celebrate and live in. We start now, knowing that we haven’t got it all sorted, but that turning our backs on what is wrong and following Jesus is the way in, even when its not easy. Some of that crowd of saints had a hard time – so did Jesus – but the kingdom is worth it. Those promises are kept. That hope is realistic. That destination will not be in lockdown. Join the celebration, enjoy the view, keep on until arrival.

This we know – how?

The last Sunday after Trinity is often kept as Bible Sunday, and we read Colossians 3:12-17, which has some important things to say. We begin by recognising that we are “God’s chosen people”. God is indeed kind: seeing the impossible state we were in our rebellion, the Son comes, not just to teach or demonstrate, but to die for our sin and open our way to life in heaven.

This we know from scripture.

Paul moves on to the consequences of the gospel. The life we are to live is a response to what God has done, and what God is, and is to be a life powered by the Holy Spirit. There are many ways this works out, and we are given an example in verse 13.

This we know from scripture.

There is to be love, and peace. Peace not from an easy life, but from confidence in God, a firm foundation, knowing where we shall end up (even if not the details of the journey to get there)

This we know from scripture.

The message of Christ is to live with us. Teaching about life, truth, and good news – still important for us, when many understand little or nothing of it. Once again, I am encouraging you to look at a passage, and see how it works for you and your life. Where do we get this from?

This we know from scripture.

Everything is to be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. This is not a “formula”, but the source of power, and the spirit in which he lived. How are we to avoid the pitfalls, including sentimentality, mistakes, and the conflict of personalities?

This we know from scripture.

I hope this run through Paul’s instructions has been encouraging and helpful, but especially that they have taken you back to what he actually said. Scripture is not like the Mona Lisa – precious, but to be locked away, examined only by experts, and carefully guarded. Scripture is like a favourite tool, to be kept at hand and used often, valued for is effectiveness and practicality.