Tag Archives: failure

Worst of Sinners -?

We don’t like the word “sinner”, and we certainly tend to think that if we have a few stains on our conscience, there are plenty others much worse. But Paul has a surprise for us

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost. ( v15 in the reading 1 Timothy 1:12-17 )

WHAT? Of course, Saul had led the persecution of Christians, rooting them out and putting them in prison. But he doesn’t say “I was”, he says “I am”. Perhaps we have to think again about our status, and doubt that great sinners are so different from us!

Who has never ever said “I hate you!”; never driven too fast; never lied, been glad at someone else’s failure, caused trouble between friends, … we don’t like recognising evil in us; but that doesn’t take it away

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersof whom I am the foremost.

But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”

Don’t imagine that you escape the label of “sinner”,
but don’t despair either. God is concerned about sinners, given the chance, he goes looking for them, brings them home, sorts them out –
and does it all very gently and patiently.

That’s why he has given us examples of those who found his love;
that’s why we are told about how concerned he is
not with the good, but with the outsider

You may know people in pain or difficulty, perhaps pray for them. Don’t forget those who may have caused the pain or difficulty. God cares – for all his children. Even the worst! There’s hope for everybody, if they want to take it.

And that’s why Paul pauses for a short hooray. Well, to be exact

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

God is good, with a goodness not overcome by terrorism, or any other form of sin, including yours and mine.
we celebrate that goodness (not our own)
and have the responsibility to take advantage, and to announce:
“ The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Wealth

“What must I do to receive eternal life?” It’s not a common question – I can’t remember being asked it. But that’s odd, for there is much interest in the spiritual, even in God. Obviously Christians are not expected to know the answers! You might want to think about whether that is good or bad.

Jesus is asked the question. (Mark 10:17-31). He refers to the ten commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17 though remember this is the Old Covenant). Commandments can be a problem for many now, who don’t want to be told, but to discover, who don’t want discipline and a consistent life. It is easier to collect religious objects (in your own time) or investigate the oddities of human behaviour (without relationship or commitment) than to live by a Covenant. But this young man at least has some understanding; he has done this, and wants more. Is there an advanced course, a way of proving himself?

Jesus sees the problem, and offers a solution. Sell everything and become a disciple! – but it is too much, and for 2 reasons.

  • The young man is rich; he can’t imagine life without his wealth, and the security, the comfort, the status it offers. Apparently even eternal life is not worth all that.
  • There’s more to it. He wanted to prove himself worthy – and that is not possible. Eternal life or salvation is God’s gift, not an earned reward. His wealth was a barrier getting in the way of his relationships.

When the young man has gone, Jesus warns his disciples about riches. He doesn’t say Christians must be poor, but he says that no-one who relies on wealth can receive salvation. For some of today’s “spiritual” people, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. Wanting their own way, a “designer spirituality”, they will not “follow”.

For some in today’s Churches, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. They want respectability, an endorsement of their social place and status. They would be offended to be told that Christians are sinners who recognise their need for help, and are united in failure, repentance, and salvation – which is a gift that cannot be earned.

Christianity is not flattering. It is not all about what a wonderful and unusually gifted person you are. It is about a God, who is truly awesome, who made us good and gifted – and will get us out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

Christianity is demanding. You can treat it like a hobby, and play with it when you have time or are in the mood. But that won’t do you much good. Christian faith is relationship based. It is not measured by emotion, but by committed action. You love God? Don’t tell me how much; let everybody see how you allow nothing to get in the way of that.

Nothing.

At all.

April Fool Easter?

It’s not often Easter falls on 1st April. (Yes, I looked it up! It has happened once before in my lifetime – 1956, and will come again in 2029,2040, but not then till 2108). I mention it because it seems to fit with Mark 16:1-8 – a funny end to the gospel, as the women run from the tomb, afraid? We almost want to ask, “Are you serious?” (Yes, verse 8 is the end, although there are 2 other endings given in most bibles, they are not in the best manuscripts, and look like attempts to “round off the story” from other gospels).

We can suggest all sorts of things:

  • Mark wanted to explain how unexpected this was, adding to the authenticity. If you were going to invent a story – be more plausible!
  • Better: He continues the theme of the failure of Jesus followers (the men are no better!) – which emphasises what God does, and the hope for imperfect believers (yes, like us!) later.
  • And perhaps: This is the end of part 1. Part 2 is being written by the believers for whom Mk wrote – they know about the spread of the Church (it has reached them in Rome), about the importance of the Resurrection, and the power of the risen Christ. What Mk is saying – to us as well – is “Now, write the next chapter”

Fear of the unknown is real in today’s Church, too. As we face changes, there will be voices that cover the fear with cynicism or ignorance. Perhaps we can go back to the good old days? Perhaps the changes we don’t like thinking about will never happen? But no, what is past brings us to our present. The present we need to face with faith.

“We just have to carry on as we have in the past”. No. The past contains some big mistakes. In Wales we have failed to engage with younger people, or indeed to evangelise their parents and grandparents, for half a century now, and unless we find the courage to do so, the Church will die out in Wales with us – and we will have to answer for failure, complacency, and unfaithfulness. (There may be other fears and failures where you are – something to think about).

And that is why it is important that the women were afraid, and that they got over their fear. If you look at Acts 10:34-43, you will see how Peter felt all sorts of doubts about going to a Gentile – it took a dream, and a summons to show him God’s way, but the result was vital.  He went beyond his fears.  If you look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (another reading set for Easter Sunday) Paul was not surprised his friends in Corinth were daunted when some of their congregation died, and they wondered if they had somehow missed out, or made a basic mistake in the meaning of the gospel. He had faced death himself, more than once, and could sympathise, but also remind them that the Christian Good News was, in 2 words, “Jesus, and Resurrection”.

Peter and Paul are both clear that the Christian faith stands, and faces fear, on the Resurrection of Jesus. That did 2 things:

  • it meant life had to be lived with a new perspective and horizon, no longer just for 70 years (more or less), but for life and eternity. It challenged fear of death, and of illness.
  • It meant Jesus was right. God raised him, and underlined all that he had taught and done. Fear of the unknown is now limited – God knows. We have reason to learn to trust Jesus.

What we face is not new, except in detail. The shadow of death, the fear – of the unknown, the unexpected, or just of not coping, is still real. It is a fear that needs to be faced, with a risen Lord.

Why read the Passion?

In many Churches this week we will read a longer passage, to follow through Jesus’ Passion story (Mark 14:1-15:47). To listen to this Passion story is to face 2 sides of reality.

One is the consistent failure of the people around Jesus.

  • Judas betrays him
  • the disciples don’t understand, fall asleep, desert
  • Peter denies him
  • the crowd want him crucified
  • Pilate doesn’t care to give him justice
  • soldiers and condemned prisoners mock him

Whatever is being achieved is not the result of human effort, offers no encouragement to depend on human goodness . .

The other side is sometimes forgotten. Jesus fights the battle against evil and death which he will win, but it is a most unusual war.

  • total casualties 1 dead
  • non fatal injuries 1 cut ear – healed immediately
  • psychiatric trauma all participants come to deal with reality better as a result of observation / participation
  • economic damage none, (unless the failure to avert the Jewish War a generation later is included, despite attempts by Jesus to avoid it). Some fishermen change trade.
  • political aftermath the Kingdom of God is established, but does not overturn other structures of government. Some officials with varying degrees of corruption are embarrassed.
  • lasting effects incalculable. The only war whose results are not buried by history.

Perhaps we begin to see why it had to be like that.  It is difficult to read, not because it is complicated, but – well, painful.  Yet this is the good news of Jesus.

Risks everywhere

How do you feel about taking risks? Do you enjoy being scared? For that matter, what do you think Christian faith has to say about taking risks?  This isn’t just a rhetorical opening. I want you to think clearly and have an answer: Does Christian faith encourage risk taking – if so, what sort and when? Does Christian faith discourage risk taking – again, what sort and when?

Jesus tells a story (Matthew 25:14-30) which involves huge amounts of money – a talent was a labourer’s wage for 15 years!!! – so the 3 are given, say £1m, £1/2 m and a mere £200,000. The stakes are high, the servants are not being asked to do odd jobs in their spare time.

How might this apply to us? In my part of the Church we are being asked to move to working in Ministry Areas. – Fewer paid priests, but using the gifts of more people. Parishes working together in areas, with more opportunity to do things that could not be done in one Parish alone. Risks? High stakes? Changes – yes, its all there.  But you might say that these things are part of normal Christian life, mightn’t you?

The challenge, of course, is to take that positively. Not “It’ll never work!”, “Seen it all before”, “You can’t expect me to . . “ negativity, but – well, let’s see what the parable (or is it an allegory?) offers:

Jesus is the master, and the Church members are the slaves. In a difficult time, we are given gifts and the wits to use them – and will be judged on our energy and inventiveness. The gifts may not be evenly distributed, but we all have something to use, – and the amounts are huge!

We might think of spiritual gifts and physical ones, people skills and technical know-how, but don’t forget education, time and money. All of these are given (never owned, just borrowed) for a purpose.

The third slave fails, because he does not understand – perhaps does not want to! His master requires that he be inventive, take risks, and be fruitful. Not bothering, minding his own business, cultivating his resentments, is failure – and a failure for which he is rightly condemned. He has not done what is required of him. [It’s true we might say that God is not like the master, who appears harsh and unreasonable – we have reason to say God is not like that. But the parable makes the point that the servants were given – or loaned – these talents in the expectation, a reasonable expectation, that they would make the best use of them they could.]

What do you think about the future? There’s good and bad, of course, and change which is never easy. But more important, What are you going to do about it? Given a chance, an opportunity, how will you react?

Go back to the beginning. What did you think the Christian faith had to say about taking risks? It’s true that in general we might be expected to be careful, but I hope you understand what this parable has to say. It is important now, not because of the present position of the Church in society, but because the Christian faith requires, of all its members,

  • that they receive different gifts from God
  • and use those gifts, energetically and creatively, in his service

It’s not use coming back and saying “there wasn’t a safe option”; of course there isn’t. Get out there and take risks – that is what is required, and required of you, now, in Christian mission.

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.

Resurrection

You don’t need modern science to tell you that dead people stay dead.  True, in my lifetime there have been changes of definition – we used to talk of heartbeat or breathing, and now both can be replaced by machines for a time.  But if you resuscitate a dying person, you still have to deal with the reason why they were dying in the first place.

So, when Matthew tells us of Easter Morning (Matthew 28:1-10), he is not saying that the crucified and buried Jesus has been resuscitated.  He is very carefully saying (as Luke says in Acts 10:40) that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  He is the same, and not the same.  Recognisably the same person, his body seems to work under different rules, and is clearly not weak and failing.

We’d love to know more.  What exactly is involved? How does this happen?  And we are not told.  Perhaps it would be beyond us.  We are given reasons to believe, but no explanation of the mechanism.  Matthew is careful to lay out reasons: Jesus had warned his disciples, there was prophecy, the tomb is empty – despite the guard, and the difficulty that causes the authorities.  Perhaps most important, I cannot think disciples lived new lives, and went to their deaths, for a lie.

Matthew is keen to explain that the risen Jesus continues the relationship with his disciples that has been the most important part of their discipleship.  As time went on during his ministry, they didn’t learn a system, progressing from elementary to standard and advanced.  They got to know him, what he was like, what he thought important, how he used the power and gifts of God.  That would continue.  It might not be an easy beginning: all had made mistakes earlier, but now, they had to come to terms with the fact that at Jesus betrayal and trial and death, they had all failed – seriously.  Re-forming that relationship with Jesus would be difficult, but vital.

That is one of the important things about Easter for us.  Like those disciples, we face the challenge of building a new life.  Even if we have been Christian for decades, it is always a new life, resisting the easy slipping back into the habits and ways of the surrounding world.  Can we live in the way he still lives, following his lead, keeping close?  It always has been a challenge, and still is.  We don’t have to make the journey to Galilee, but seeing Jesus, and what he is doing, is very much part of our Easter agenda.

In sight?

This week many British churches will be taken up with Mothering Sunday (and there is a Dialogue Sketch on that theme here), but the lectionary provides a reading from John 9:1-41 for others.

It is a story of a blind man coming to sight – and a great deal more than just physical sight (remarkable as that was, and is, in someone who have never been able to see).  It is made clear that the healing of his eyes is only a start.  He then has to struggle with some heavy questioning before he finds Jesus in a new way, and is able to “see” more profoundly.

Alongside this happy story is another, of increasing blindness.  By verse 41 Jesus has harsh words for those who say they are spiritually able to see, but cannot.  The division is there in v16, and has hardened by v24.

Is this still true?  Yes.  There are those today who are finding “sight”.  There are also others, even within religion, who are not.  We say that we walk in the light.  What happens if that isn’t true?

  • the occasional failure can be repented of and forgiven
  • but when we fail to recognise God at work, and persist in that opinion -!

The challenge is to speak of what we know.  We are intended to know God.  If we fail to know, become complacent, or imagine that God must work according to our traditions, that is far worse even than physical blindness.