Tag Archives: Christian life

Warfare

Paul is writing a letter, but he is under guard in prison (we have come to Ephesians 6:10-20). He uses the picture, setting faith in the ordinary world – even his. We can imagine him listening to soldiers boasting of old campaigns.

He asks first, Who is the enemy? The temptation is to identify a person, a party, an opinion. All mistakes. “we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces “ (Ephesians 6:12) This is very important – there is a Christian fight. We may not like violence – and that is good – but faith is not a genteel discussion, but a struggle. To live as a Christian is to face opposition, difficulty, and temptation.

Paul picks up the soldier’s equipment to explain. (Perhaps he watched the guard coming on duty shed the gear in which they had just been inspected?). We notice the need for practice and experience (verse 13). (In passing we might add that the Roman army used discipline and working together to overcome larger numbers). What does he examine? The belt is Truth. It’s not about winning the argument, but about keeping with the reality of God. Righteousness is a breastplate. When you are accused, you need to be sure of forgiveness and status as a free child of God.

Shoes (sandals, well think boots) are Good News – that travels well. Faith is a shield; you don’t know or understand everything – but trust that God does. Salvation is helmet, protecting the brain that matters, even if other bits suffer. Prayer reminds you to work with God always – individual enterprise is dangerous!

There is only one weapon (despite many pieces for protection) – the word of God as sword. Not hard and cutting words, but the ones God gives which go straight to the heart of the matter.

That, says Paul in prison, is your equipment. Learn to use it, practice and get comfortable with every bit before you go into a serious fight.

Perhaps you still don’t like the thought? You wanted a quiet life, not a punch up? Will you end up with the Jews in Capernaum Jesus asked “Does this make you want to give up?” (John 6:61). Or are you with Joshua and his family (in Joshua 24), deciding to be with God and rejecting the alternatives.

This military metaphor is – only a metaphor (the weapons are differently allocated to spiritual qualities in other places). But it is also a reality to be faced while there is time for reflection.

So What?

If you have been following readings from Ephesians, you may remember Paul has first covered “theory”. He has talked about the blessings received through Christ, the dangers of that time (not only as Paul was a prisoner), and the unity of Jew and Gentile in a shared faith. So we come to Ephesians 4:1-16 (or 1-24), and Paul comes to the consequences of faith.

The first thing is unity, mutual dependence – according to one commentator “the fundamental principle of corporate life”. The focus of this unity is not common ritual or practice, but one Lord. The body looks to him, the Spirit comes from Him, the faith (and baptism) are in Him.There is great danger when unity is focused elsewhere – in a building, in a denomination, in habit. These destroy unity, and provide no base for humility, gentleness, patience and love. On the other hand, loyalty and commitment to God in Christ lead on to these. This is an important part of what Paul is saying. “All life should be lived as an expression of and response to God’s calling”

Then (vv7-16) comes a surprise. Rather than the victor demanding tribute, Christ gives gifts, to equip the Church and facilitate the ministry of all its people. The pattern is clearly unity, not in uniformity but in diversity – a variety of gifts used to promote mature faith which makes a resilient body of believers not easily mislead. It is interesting that the most “gifted” (for all are gifted) are themselves to be seen as gifts, not an authority figures, and are themselves part of the body. No role here for superheroes, just the call for every one to use what gifts they have, and encourage others to do so.

If Christian people are to be drawn together by loyalty to one Lord, and enriched by gifts deployed for the good of all, then in 4:17-24, (missed in our Sunday sequence – we start at v25 next week) as in 4:1 they are to live a new life. The selfish, morally blind life is to be abandoned in favour of a new way. The knowledge of God is important morally as well as intellectually, and Christian life is lived for God’s purpose, not simply our own pleasure or advantage. So v23 you are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”.

There is no shortage here of specific, and demanding, instructions (you may want to take away and think about those that are new, or that seem to affect you directly) – but everything is linked back to faith, and to what Christians have been given. Nothing here is “because I say so” or “we have always done it this way and so must you”. Paul’s appeal is that Christians should live “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” 4.1 Those who are most aware of how much they have been given, how greatly they need rescue from themselves and their world, are most likely to be ready to hear and respond to the call to a new life. I hope that includes us.

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

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.

Choose your team!

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

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

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

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

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

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Scripture, on and offline

Friday was wet and windy, and I stopped my car to collect a food waste bin from the middle of the road. It was clearly an odd thing to do in the rain! Very clearly – I got “looks”. People tend to assume that pleasing yourself – doing what you want to – is either a natural right, or at least something given the more senior members of a group, or perhaps those who have money to spend. But that’s a mistake!

The Christian faith teaches us that the strong – so especially those older members of the congregation, who have practised for longer – are NOT to please themselves, but to help others to build up their faith and strength. This may be less of a shock to parents and grandparents.

Look at today’s lesson Romans 15:1-6. Paul has urged the congregation not to split over minor issues – eating meat (often sacrificed in pagan temples), drinking wine, or arguing over whether or not to observe particular Jewish festivals (in a mixed Jewish-Gentile congregation). Now he says:

“We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

Romans 15:1-3

Basic Christian gospel. Jesus offers us love and forgiveness, not because we deserve it, but because of his love and God’s plan. We are invited to respond, learning the same love, and finding the same HS strength.

How do we know about this?

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Romans 15:4

Yes, on Bible Sunday we are sent back to the Bible. I know some of you are involved with Open the Book, and know how children enjoy and benefit from the stories. I know some of you will be involved in study groups, or follow Bible notes individually. I wonder if you have woken up to mobile phones?

  • Mine has a Bible downloaded (free!) with a daily verse
  • it also has Scripture Union Daily Bread notes
  • Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline for each day with the right readings, canticles, and a reminder of feast days + commemorations
  • and of course there are many gospel films on You Tube (+ a lot of rubbish)

The point of all this? Not getting a “qualification”. Paul lays it out clearly:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Romans 15:5-7

The Christian life is tough. We are to have the attitude of Jesus, our Lord, and to draw strength from the same Holy Spirit. It won’t always be appreciated. Often it won’t even be understood – look, or rather read, what happened to him. But it is lifegiving, for us and for others. Our worship and thanksgiving are not some cold duty, but the gateway to a new and wonderful life. Together, will all our failings, we write a new chapter of God’s rescue of his people and his rebuilding of broken humanity. It’s worth being a part of.

For example – Peter

Peter’s great recognition of Jesus as the long-promised and expected King (Messiah) is a turning point in each of the first three gospels (Matthew 16:13-20).  It brings into the open – though only for the disciples at first – the most important truth.  For us, who sometimes think “Christ” is Jesus surname, we wonder at the significance.  (Christ is actually the Greek form of the Hebrew “Messiah”, literally anointed one, so King).

We might see its importance for us by looking at Peter.  Peter was a tough fisherman, who took time to take Jesus seriously, and then personally. Luke tells us how (Luke 5:1-10), after Peter lent his boat for Jesus to preach from, a big catch of fish taken by following Jesus’ instructions led to Peter’s admission of sin and failure. Jesus doesn’t go away as Peter suggests, but commissions him as a fisher of men.  Freed from the guilt of his past failure, Peter is also freed from being “just a Galilean fisherman”. He becomes a leader of apostles.

Many Christians have found the freedom of faith liberated them. Some were aware that guilt crippled them, and forgiveness made new life possible. Others concentrated more on the acceptance and dignity that God gave to lives lived in difficult or demanding circumstances. No one else might know or care what happened to them, but if God did, they could walk on, and walk tall.

Peter’s trust in Jesus wasn’t just an escape from guilt and a limited life. It brought his a freedom to serve.  At Caesarea Philippi, he recognises Jesus as the promised Messiah, the fulfilment of what the OT looked forward to – and he has the courage to say it.  (Of course, he hasn’t become infallible – his next line will be mistakenly telling Jesus that he doesn’t need to suffer!).  This is the pivot of the gospel because it makes clear that Jesus is Lord.  Not just a teacher, explaining a theory, nor just a miracle worker.

Again, after Jesus Resurrection and Ascension, Peter has seen James arrested and executed.  But he is set free by an angel (Acts 12:1-12). He won’t escape execution for ever, but he has years of service to give first, travelling, teaching, telling the world about Jesus.

Perhaps the freedom to serve is something we are not so good at.  We want to be free from things that limit and diminish us, but are not so good at understanding what use to make of our freedom. Peter shows us how a life in Jesus’ service might indeed be the intended use of freedom.  If the picture we get from Peter is freedom from sin, guilt and the limitations of a small life, it is also of freedom to serve, grow, and for him to be a leader and pioneer.  Peter is a good example of Christian life!