Tag Archives: covenant

Not good news?

Paul, preacher of a wonderful gospel, is left with an agonising problem. Romans 9 opens with pain – we read Romans 9:1-5). A Jew (more observant than most – look at 2 Corinthians 11 etc) and one-time persecutor of Christians, he has been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles. His career has met with success (by grace), and a large number of churches look to him as founder. Corinth, in Galatia, Philippi, and others.

The problem? He knows, only too well, that the faith of these non-Jews, “outsiders”, has been won against the opposition of some Jews, who would have stopped them if they could. He knows that he is seen as a traitor, and there are numbers of people who would gladly kill him as a religious duty. He knows that Judaism doesn’t want to know about Jesus; there are exceptions, thank God, but the majority won’t listen.

In one sense it’s not a problem. The Christian church has made the decision – Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, – gentiles who become Christian believers do not have to become Jews, only to keep the Christian faith and avoid some things particularly offensive to Jews. History will show that the offspring will overtake the parent, spreading further and becoming far larger. But for Paul, there remains the pain of seeing people he knows, and others he understands so well from his former life, refusing to accept what God has done and is doing.

Are we past the issue? Many of us – perhaps all of us? – know the difficulty of friends and close family, about whose faith we have no confidence. We can’t always be sure: faith is not about words, but attitudes (and I suspect the faith of a depressive or someone with little confidence is less obvious than that of the opposite personality type – but even then it needs action, reality).

How do you cope with the fact that parents or children may live, by choice, outside Christian faith and hope? I hope you pray for them – for it is a serious matter. To live without faith is to live in danger of the judgement of God, to live without the assurance of heaven. And so we pray, and take what opportunities we can to encourage faith, to explain, to take them to places where they might hear the gospel in ways that would strike a chord. We listen, to hear what they think and feel, to check for ways in, for books or films or experiences that might help.

We may be seen as traitors, “letting the side down”. We may even find religious people trying to prevent people coming to living faith. You know the sort of phrase that begins “We don’t do that here” . . We will certainly find people who will lie and cheat, to prevent the message about Jesus being taken seriously (by themselves or others). But in the end, we have to wait for God. Knowing that we don’t understand more than a tiny part of his purposes. Knowing that, while he can work in amazing ways to turn people right around, he so values their free response that he will not force, nor let us do so. No nagging, no blackmail. We have to use the methods of Christ, and offer love, knowing it may be refused.

Paul’s concern for his fellow Jews shows his human side. How will we be seen for our concern for non-Christian friends?

Take the tablets?

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 some 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. (Today we read Romans 4:1-5 and 4:13-17). 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. We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised. Paul argues in Romans 4 that it is not only Jews, who keep the Old Testament Law, who are in a covenant relationship with God. We can see that it would have been important then – as fury with Christians for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism provoked persecution and the division of the two faiths. 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, though not in a Jewish-Christian setting. It may help to look at what is being said. In Rom 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law (that is, the Old Testament). 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.

What caused a fuss in the first century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way through faith/trust. 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.

All about suffering -?

There is also a Dialogue Sketch on Mark 1:9-15 here

What is done in church should not just be for the enjoyment of those who attend, but should glorify God by building up believers and communicating the gospel to others.  It’s a principle you find in 1 Corinthians 14, but a first look at this morning’s readings might not seem to be encouraging from the point of view of an outsider:

Such negative thoughts are hard, and might suggest doing something else, but that would be a sad mistake. Take 1 Peter 3:18-22, Christ suffered, but “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is not miserable, negative suffering.  It is part of a battle to set us free. The God that Peter knows is a God who is ready to pay a great price, himself, for our redemption. He tells this to a group of people who obviously are not having an easy life – and it is good news for them, as it is for us.

The God he speaks of is the same God who in Genesis makes a promise – a covenant – to Noah. A promise which is to Noah’s advantage, for his security and reassurance. A promise which he has kept faithfully.

Yes, its the season of Lent. We think of Jesus going into the wilderness, not because he was the sort of person who could not enjoy himself, or who enjoyed suffering, but to get his ministry on the right track – to avoid mistakes and distractions.  If we review our own disciplines and rules of life, it is not for their own sake (as if they had an importance of their own), but to ask if our lives, our service of God, our ministry, is on the right track, avoiding mistakes and distractions.  Perhaps we need to do something more to prevent our life being self-centred?

This is a message of hope – something in short supply, and valuable as most scarce commodities are.  You won’t be thanked for hate, but hope is properly precious. (There is a Lent Study by CTBI, using prisoners’ stories of hope – see the website.)  Our hope is not in human nature, nor the beauty of creation, or the possibility of education.

Our hope is in God, who cares for us enough to plan our rescue, and to follow the plan through. That is not just for you (though it is – and that’s important) but for all.  If an outsider should join my group, or just get to know me, they should find a focus on God, and hope in his love and saving action.

– and that is the reason for us to train ourselves

to advertise and proclaim good news.

Exodus and Easter (Easter 2c)

This week we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the victory at the Red Sea (Exodus 14), along with stories of the Resurrection and the Acts sequence.  The Exodus is a long time ago – c1250BC, so 3000 years, when we find 300 a big gap.  Can I convince you it still has something to say?

The Israelites were freed from slavery (still an issue), and given an identity as a people bound to God by a Covenant agreement.  They had to learn – repeatedly – of God’s power, faithfulness, and ability to lead them.  They might have learnt from the plagues which eventually convinced Pharaoh to let them go, but it seems they were always ready to complain!

So what is there for Christians in the old story?  Well

  • Easter is very much about celebrating freedom from slavery to sin and death.  We have a Christian identity, and are part of a Christian family, because of the victory God has won without our help.
  • Sadly, we often forget – who we are, what God is like, what we are to be like.  We have Christian stories to tell, but they are sometimes left out, and sometimes we miss their relevance and significance.
  • The journey through the Red Sea is sometimes compared to Baptism, or to the becoming Christian.  In Romans 6 Paul talks about our dying with Christ to the old life, and rising to a new (quality and purpose of) life.
  • Jesus last meal with his friends was a Passover (or very much reflected it – scholars argue the timing).  Jesus took the story of the Passover meal the night of the last plague, when the Israelites were kept safe from the death of the firstborn in houses marked with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, and gave it new significance.  Jesus gives the cup of wine the status of his blood – blood of a new Covenant.

So perhaps the Exodus story has something to teach Christians about Easter.  The final point I find reassuring: the Israelites found it hard to learn, to keep the discipline, to follow their leaders.  Perhaps Christians aren’t so bad!