Tag Archives: faith

Concentrating the mind

In the days when I was a student among Christian friends, we were sometimes asked, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” As long as it remains theoretical, it is an interesting question. Nowadays, I suppose, some would simply want to avoid trouble, and get him shot without argument, but I think we were a bit more assertive. I was reminded of this by Paul’s opening of 1Corinthians 15:1-11

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. You will be saved by this message, if you hold firmly to it. But if you don’t, your faith was all for nothing.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-2

And the message is very simply summarised – nothing about morality, liturgy, lifestyle – all those are consequences.

“I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Simple as that. Jesus died for our sins (and the death was real, because he was buried). Jesus was raised to life (and the rising was real, because there are a whole string of witnesses, including Paul). He didn’t just die. Most people manage that, one way or another, but he died for our sins. For the detail in that, we are told “according to the scriptures” Paul means the Old Testament, because the New Testament doesn’t yet exist, so especially Isaiah, and the other passages which help us understand significance of the Cross.

Jesus didn’t just appear to people, like a ghost, or as some outpouring of group hysteria. He came to individuals and groups, in a variety of places and times of day. Often unexpected, sometimes unrecognised for a time, they believed in his life. Their conversations, and reconciliations, were real. Many would die; nobody suggested a fraud. This is the earliest Christian Creed (apart from “Maranatha”, and the phrase “Jesus is Lord”, perhaps). It reminds us our our roots, and Paul tells us of the need to stay with this faith if we wish to benefit from it.

So, “What would you say to a man in the 5 minutes before he is taken to be executed?” It would be easy to get it wrong: nerves, or especially in our culture, arrogantly saying, “Do this . .”

I think my best suggestion would go something like this:

“Excuse me, I’m Andrew Knight. I don’t know if there’s anything you particularly want, but I wonder if I could tell you a story? (It might stop there if there was a negative answer, but I might be able to go on:)

It was a long time ago, but there was a man who lived an exciting life, helping many, and winning respect from ordinary people. He made some enemies, and although he did nothing wrong and they had to fix his trial, they got him condemned and executed. His friends were in despair, shocked and frightened, but slowly reports came in that he was alive. They couldn’t understand; some had seen him buried. But it was true, Jesus, somehow, wonderfully, was alive. He appeared to different groups, in different places, they talked, ate, and their lives changed. The story has spread, and there are still those like me who believe it.

I hope I never have to tell it in those circumstances, but, like all of you, I have to try and find ways of saying things to people every day. One of the challenges is to find the time, and place, and way of saying, the really important things. It isn’t easy, but it’s a good start when you are clear about the basics:

“My friends, I want you to remember the message that I preached and that you believed and trusted. . . . . Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say.”

1 Corinthians 15

Basics

There are churches, and speakers, where you know that on every occasion you will be told that Jesus died for our sins, because, they say, that is the gospel. And they are right. The gospel is about Jesus, and the New Testament is quite clear that the climax of his ministry was his death, which was in some way for us. I can think of at least 2 reasons why Anglicans might not seem to say this so often. One is that they bore more easily, and don’t take to repetition. A better one would be that, though Jesus death for us is the centre of the gospel, there are many implications to work out, and enough to think about to keep many brilliant men occupied for more than a lifetime.

Nevertheless, if we are to talk of Ephesians 2:1-10, we shall have a timely revisiting of basic gospel, which we ought to have clearly in mind as our Christian foundation.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-3

Despite a generally held opinion, we learn there is nothing natural in going to heaven; we deserve judgement, and a very different fate. Perhaps that is something to come to terms with?

It is good to remember what we once were (and, especially if that is difficult, what we may again be tempted to be) – living according to our own desires. How often that is now given as a description of “retirement”! Be careful; there is nothing magic about Christian habits to stop you falling back into unfaith and God’s judgement. If that’s the bad – well serious – news, the good is wonderful

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:4-9

God loves us, and reaches out to help, – not because we are good, not because we deserve or earn it; but because he is that sort of God. Forgiveness is free! It’s very difficult to take that seriously. We are confused by people whose love is not unconditional, but it’s true. So we are free, and need to live like that!

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Yes, that is what we are made for. But the good work comes after forgiveness; it is a reaction, not a payback. Today many will celebrate family, and some will re-open old wounds. Yet the Christian hope of life is in a family where all are loved – loved and offered free forgiveness despite what they are and what they have done. It’s quite a family.

Good enough?

Paul faced fury in some quarters for allowing Gentiles full believer status without conversion to Judaism; it provoked persecution and the division of the Christianity from Judaism. 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. It may help to look at what is being said around our reading of Romans 4:13-25. In Romans 3:31, Paul claims to uphold the Law, that is the Old Testament as we know it. 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. That’s a long time ago, but the relevance to us is in the question: “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 many 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. 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. v35 “us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our sanctification.” We trust God, but more specifically, Jesus who died for us and was raised.

What caused a fuss in the first Century was the idea that both Jews and Gentiles reached God in the same way like this. 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.

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.

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.