Tag Archives: faith

Christian Behaviour

It is easy to get confused about what Christian Behaviour should be. There are lots of “things we ought / ought not to do”, but they don’t always agree, and anyway, who says? Of course the Old Testament had commandments which gave a picture of what God was like, and liked. But they could mislead – some thought that just having the commandments made them better than other people, and in any case, they all made mistakes and failed to live perfectly.

Paul taught Christians (Jews or Gentiles) that they would get to heaven because their sin was forgiven by the grace of God, depending on the death of Jesus, and through the faith of the believer. But he then had to face the question (we are reading Romans 6:1-11), “So, why behave? If sins are forgiven, why worry?” Paul’s answer might be paraphrased “No way: Live for yourself, or live for Christ – but you can’t do both!”

I don’t have to tell you about living for yourself – we’ve all done it! It’s selfish, which means that we don’t enjoy the pleasures as much as we might, both because we may have hurt others to get them, and because we are looking over one shoulder to see who may be trying to take them away. It makes a world where you’re on your own, everyone against everyone else and pity help the weak. And if you live for yourself there’s always a problem with guilt and failure. You’re never going to reach God’s standards, and you probably won’t keep up your own, either.

So, what’s the alternative – to live for Christ. That doesn’t make us perfect; you may have noticed that Christians are still sinners. But it is a totally different motivation. As forgiven sinners, we work together with others who share this loyalty. They’re an odd lot, and sometimes it is rubbing along with them that rubs off some of our rough edges. But if we share a Master, we also have a real unity. This is a family which, though it can argue, has a very strong reason for living together.

There’s another benefit. The more we get into this service of Christ, the more like him we become. It’s one of the things the Holy Spirit does to us and with us; you may not notice, but other people will. What are we saying? A lot of people still make the mistake of thinking that Christian Behaviour is “being good” – getting a good score on keeping the commandments. That is a mistake.

Christian behaviour is all about serving Jesus, living for him. (Rather like the line in today’s gospel, Matthew 10:32,33 “If anyone declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same for him before my Father in heaven. But if anyone rejects me publicly, I will reject him before my Father in heaven.” The question is “Who do you belong to?” and there is the same sharp division). Those commandments are still useful – they tell us things what God thinks is important, and warn us of dangers.

If you want to know how you are doing, don’t say “I wonder if 7/10 is a pass mark for keeping the commandments” but ask “How much of today did I live for Jesus, and how much did I really live to get my own way?”

Still Thankful

When Peter wrote (we are looking at 1 Peter 1:3-9 ), Christians were not having an easy time; like us, they were people who had not known Jesus during his ministry. Like us they had problems, though theirs may have been from the emperor Nero. Life is difficult for many people, now as ever. I imagine most of you could identify “issues”; perhaps you’d like to think about it as you read. What are the problems, the irritants, the sticking points, the causes of tension. Is there one main one, or two or three together (more than that, and you’re probably missing the point, the root cause). If everybody annoys you, it may be you who is the problem

Have you got some idea? Good, because what Peter has to say may well apply to us, too. First of all, he urges us to “give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” v3 – thanks for the new life we were given through Jesus’ resurrection. That’s important, not least because it tends to get lost when other things get to us. If you don’t know what you are doing, at least give thanks, and remember what you are giving thanks for.

Then he talks about the safety of our presents. Have you ever had something put away for you? The silver mug or spoon at the Christening; the toy that’s very nice, but a little too old for you just yet? Adults may have things in the bank, like the deeds of the house, or a piece of family jewellery – kept safe. Well says Peter, at an unsettled time, isn’t it great to know that God’s good presents to us are kept safe; they can’t be stolen, or spoiled. So even in rough, uncertain times, there is something to give thanks for personally.

So you can face your “issues” with thanks to God, – and with faith. Too often we leave a gap between the difficult bits of life and our faith, but that’s a mistake! We are given a new life, and need to live it, and to apply its energy and principles to our problems and sticking points. Peter is not surprised that the Christians are suffering; he didn’t expect them to escape difficulty because they had been good (verses 6, 7a). Their problems will help them to grow up in faith, showing what is genuine, and what isn’t and needs to be replaced by something firmer.

He doesn’t offer an instant fix. Look at Jesus he will say (in chapter 2:18f), and as his followers you will not expect an easy ride, or immunity from pain, or success. But look at Jesus, he will say, and you will see how worthwhile it all was, and how glorious is the way he walked, even with its pain.

We may be glad that our Royal family is one we can give thanks for. I don’t think I can find a single point of comparison between them and the emperor Nero. But like those first century Christians, we face problems, and need reminding to face them with thanksgiving for God’s goodness, remembering that the worst trouble is not going to make us lose God’s best blessings, and that if things are rough for a time, it should sort out our faith.

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.

Most important

In our world, news travels fast. With the reporting of need, whether from famine, or displacement caused by war or disaster, come requests for aid – food, shelter, tools. It is right that we should respond, as good citizens, and even more as Christians who value people as made in God’s image and loved by Him. Sometimes we get tired – “compassion fatigue” sets in. But it is still right to act.

In recent years, our response to natural disaster and war has been supplemented by a concern for climate change. The Australian bushfires this year are the lastest in a series of events happening around the globe. Again, it is right that we should respond, as good citizens, and even more as Christians who value God’s creation, as well as those who depend on it. The EcoChurch project has helped inform some of us, and shown practical ways to respond.

Yet it is easy to lose perspective. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth (today we read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9), he begins with thanks – thanks for their faith, which they have been given as a gift by God’s grace. They are not a wealthy group – though they will later contribute to a collection for famine victims in Judea. They are not a perfect group – Paul will have to deal with some scandal later. But his first reaction is to give thanks for their faith, and the way it has enriched their lives – verse 5 “enriched in every way”. A “mixed bag” of people, they are verse 2 “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people”. The implication is that God, who has given them faith, will also supply what is needed to grow that faith. That has to be an encouragement to us, who show some similarities!

So I want to ask, “What is it that we want most for those in need, or for our friends and families, or indeed for ourselves?” Yes, we all need the necessities of life, and should give thanks for food, shelter and security. If these are lacking and we can supply them for others, so we should. Yes, we need a world fit for our grandchildren to live in, not blighted by our selfishness and failure to act now that we know what is going wrong with our climate. Again, we need to take action, and to join others who will do something – making new friends in the process.

But the perspective we must not lose, is the awareness that the greatest of all blessings is the grace God gives to those who respond to the call of faith. The many blessings of the Christian life are not earned benefits, but gifts to those who will receive them.

We cannot press this on anyone. Jesus himself teaches us by his example that there is to be no force, no nagging, no emotional blackmail. But let us be clear, and keep in mind, that while we have a responsibility to the needy, and to the future of the world, the one thing always to be hoped and longed for, and most greatly prized, is faith. If we can share ours, and help someone to find their own way to God, that is worth more than anything.

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.

Faith

I wonder what “Faith” means to you? Faith is sometimes thought of as religious opinion; I’m sure you would go beyond that. We might talk vaguely of having faith in a government, school or doctor – that’s better ( it adds confidence to opinion) but does not have the idea of the trust which makes faith the basis of action.; that’s vital, as the stories we read today in Hebrews 11 and 12 show (the reading is Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2).

Faith is about what you do: it made the Israelites able to cross the Red Sea. They were pretty frightened, and it needed God’s action and Moses steadiness – but it was faith that made them listen to the instructions and then do them. They crossed the sea, and escaped the Egyptians, but they had to wait by the shore and then walk. That illustrates a point. Faith is not so much about being emotionally worked up and certain and not able to think of other possibilities. It is probably less important to have “great faith” than to be sure that the faith you have is in a great God, and is put into practice. So Abraham had to leave, travel, sacrifice Isaac. He didn’t earn favour, but learnt to look forward.

Faith is not always about doing the obvious. Moses had plenty of critics (and some mutinies). Joshua must have faced questions as he led the people in silence round the walls of Jericho. He may have shared those questions, but he had the faith to do as he was told, with dramatic results. Be careful! Faith is not following every daft idea that comes into your head. If you feel called to do something odd, check carefully and involve other people. Often the great temptation is to think we know best! Later, there are sad stories of those who thought they could improve on God’s instructions – Saul is an example, saving the “banned” cattle.

Faith is not irrational, but it is a decision, taken on the basis of what we know of God, to do what he commands, even when we don’t understand why or how it will work out. Moses had no rational chance against Pharaoh and his army; and yet, with some human co-operation and in spite of human opposition from others, his purposes succeed and the slaves go free. Human responsibility remains.

Faith can lead to uncomfortable experiences. Gideon and Barak both won important battles, but they were very uncertain, and needed a lot of persuading to take the lead. We are told that some won great victories, but others were lead by faith to suffering and death. And note that many were not “natural heroes”, faith changed them. Some we can identify. Jeremiah was mocked and imprisoned, Isaiah by tradition sawn in two, Zechariah stoned, and a number during Maccabean persecution (c66BC) tortured -2Mac6,7.

But that is not really the point. Why would we trust a God, if he might lead us into situations like that? Because its worth it. Even that sort of trouble is worthwhile if we then end up on God’s side. And we have an advantage that none of those examples did – we live after Jesus. We know what he endured, and where it lead him. We have even more reason to accept that a cross may be the way to heaven.

So faith is a belief, and a confidence, but always needing to be put into practice. These people, examples of faith, often knew less than we do of God’s plans, but they acted on what they knew; sometimes it lead them to strange and unlikely actions, but this was no madness – they were proved right by the results. Sometimes faith led them into suffering and difficulty, but again, it was not without reason in the purposes of God.

Which is all very interesting, and historical, until we realise that the time for faith is now. Don’t wait until you can see everything – you never will (on earth). If times are easy, faith will keep us from laziness. If times are hard, faith will keep us going. If times are confused, faith will steer us in the right direction. Faith, in a great God, is something to act on.

Abraham ?

The letter to Hebrews (today we read Hebrews 11:1-3 and 11:8-16 or all of Hebrews 11:1-16) wants to explain “faith”, and so talks about Abraham. Here is a man of faith. Not faith as a dogmatic, stubborn, closed mind, living in an imaginary world. Abraham sets out on a journey because he trusts God, trusts that God has called him to travel. His faith is that trust – to go forward, take risks, (even to leave what he knows and follow God’s promise). Again, when promised a son by his wife Sarah, he trusts God, and the promise becomes a reality. It is through this faith, this trust, that he becomes such a key part of God’s story and the working out of God’s plan. He is remembered by 3 faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim.

Perhaps we need to look closely to see how this works, and might transfer to our lives and experience. It is not about blind obedience – Abraham doesn’t live by rules: do this, don’t do that. No, he lives close enough to God to hear, and when he hears, to have the confidence to obey, and see it work out.

That’s exciting, and a bit scary. But it seems to be where a good deal of Christian life is. Think about when you have needed God’s help, and received it. Think about what God is asking of you and of people around you now. It is not all clearly mapped out, there are risks – of getting it wrong, making mistakes, looking stupid (or worse). But there is also a chance to be a part of what God is doing!

Back to Abraham. He doesn’t see it all happen (we are talking c 1800BC!), but he sees God working, and looks forward, even beyond his lifetime. So, will you look forward and work for the future, or only back? Have you the faith to be on God’s journey, looking for the promises, and the reassurances of being on the right track? The gospel (Luke 12:32-40) paints a picture of some of the blessings given to those who travel that way. But we still have to set out, and keep going.

Most Important!

Paul writes to Colossae, a place he has never visited, with a church founded by someone else. He’s heard that things are going wrong – there is a group whose teaching is seriously different and dangerous – it has all sorts of things: a bit of Jewishness, claims to “advance” beyond apostolic Christianity, mystical teaching about angels, and an “in-club” exclusivism.

So what does Paul have to say to all this, the threat to his teaching, and the true gospel? (You might want to read Colossians 1:1-5 now, the first part of the reading Colossians 1:1-14). Paul doesn’t seem as worried, or as negative, as I was! He wants to give thanks, and picks out faith (one commentator suggests – “Christian confidence”) and love, based on the hope of heaven.

He seems to put his hope for their future in these things, rather than a careful campaign against the false teachers. He will have more to say about them and their teaching, but there’s no panic. This is more important.

When we get to verses 9 and 10, his prayer is not for victory over the others, but for knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and understanding. Is this so that they can put other people in their place? No. It is so that they can live properly, and do good deeds.

Paul really seems to think this is most important, as if it brought some protection, some benefit. And there’s one more thing. He talks about rescue, being set free, having sins forgiven. And he says God has done that! His opponents would have said that people needed “spiritual development” or some such thing. Paul says – the important things are simple and positive: God has set us free, given forgiveness in Jesus (as Epaphras said). So they (and we, overhearing this conversation by letter) should take advantage, and hold onto that!

Faith, love, the assurance that even when it is hard to do right, its value is never lost in heaven, where all will be safe – these are the imp things. So why am I reading bits of Colossians 1? Because I too easily see the negatives, and worry about how to react. What I find here is a reminder of the simple goodness and reliability of the gospel.

Accept what God has done, and offered you by faith – be sure you accept, and have confidence! Trust God (always more than “people” or “plans”), and love one another. Of course it will sometimes go wrong, but those things are so important!

Messiah and Good Shepherd?

[There is a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday at “The Lord is – my tour guide?“, and there follows one for the gospel for Easter 4c]

The Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah, at Christmastime, remembered the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus after he threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem (John 10:22-30, especially verse 22). A time when thoughts of freedom, and God’s Messiah, came up. So – Was Jesus the Messiah – and why wouldn’t he say so?

I think you know. He was the Messiah, all that he had done pointed to it. But if he said so, it would just start an argument. People needed, not to argue, but to think for themselves – and follow up their conclusions by action.

That’s still true. Preachers tend not to shout at you much. Why? It doesn’t do anything useful. The stories are told, connections and suggestions offered. You have to take responsibility for weighing it up – and taking action. Is Jesus the Messiah, or something else? I think he’s the Messiah, and that’s the basis of my following Him. Make your own mind up – and act on the conclusion!

Then there is the difficult verse John 10:26 “but you will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

Difficult because:

  • It divides the flock (who believe – with much more than a correct opinion) from those who do not; – a critical division. Seen clearly in the story of Jesus, we still fail to apply it in our own time. Are you part of the flock of God, or not? “Independent sheepishness” is not on offer.
  • It reminds us that faith is a gift. On the one hand, no one is prevented from following Jesus / joining the flock. On the other, faith is a gift. There is an undeniable truth in the doctrine of Predestination. There is a paradox, difficult to hold together logically. Faith is a gift, yet those who lack it are held responsible for the actions of their faithless life.

The benefits of being in the flock are real, but not always romantic. The sheep who know the shepherd are themselves known. Those who follow the shepherd are led to food, water, and safe rest. That does not mean a selfish life – everything you want and nothing else; nor does it avoid the robust realities of getting on with the other sheep. But the difference between that, and life outside, without guidance and protection, or even hope of forgiveness and escaping the consequences of failure, are breathtaking.

The image of the Good Shepherd may be romanticised by some, but not by Jesus. He understands the division between the flock and those not included as key to the future.

Perspective

[for a comment on Luke 15:11-32, Lent 4c gospel, see this.]

How do you weigh up somebody new? The way they speak, dress, spend their leisure time? Perhaps their work, and the amount of money they seem to have and spend?

Yet Paul challenges all this, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” 2 Cor 5:16. (Part of this week’s epistle – 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We need to look for faith, holiness of life and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – because these are the things that matter in eternity. It seems that the Corinthians are rather keen on classical rhetoric, and find Paul less impressive than some competitors.

Paul will not allow us to make such purely human judgements. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, transformed, reconciled to God – and given the vital job of bringing others to reconciliation with God.

Education would be more valuable if it was about godly wisdom. Sometimes it does encourage the pursuit of truth, but too often it is the competitive grasping of qualifications. If you educate a thief, you get a clever thief. For years, education was seen as the way out of poverty, the ticket out of the coalpit – but now we need to ask – ticket to where?

Culture covers everything from fine art and classical music to table manners, the habit of saving, and polite conversation. Not many that I would like to lose, yet they are about a way of doing things, not much about deciding what is right or motivating us to obey God. Wealth, in terms of the gospel, is a great responsibility, not a sign of having arrived.

Christians will spend eternity with those who never went to school (but weren’t stupid), who knew nothing of our literature, music, clothing, or food, and owned nothing worth £10. – remember that most Christians have not been European, let alone privileged. They will be the heavenly and eternal family.

On the other hand, many of those who have been closest to us – family members, colleagues, friends made through sport or leisure activities, will have no part in that. Ignorant of Christian faith, or dismissive of it, they risk losing out, unless we can provide the vital connection. “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” verse 20

We are reminded today, not just that there are many people to pray for, and that God is kind to the prodigal, but of weightier and more urgent matters. Our need is not to behave a bit better and pray a bit more, but to be sure that we are indeed reconciled to God, transformed by what he alone can do. Our whole outlook must change from that of our culture to that of our God. As we recognise a strange family, we take on also the responsibility of adding to it while there is time.