Tag Archives: God

“No longer for ourselves alone”

Paul wrote a letter to a church he had never visited – and, usefully for us, it sets out the message he preached. That message centres on Jesus, and on the good news that God has acted to rescue humans unable to save themselves. Let me take you through a little of what he says before today’s epistle. Paul claims that at least some of God’s character is clear in creation – but that there has been a general rebellion against God and living his way, and as a result there is guilt. The trouble is, it is not just “them”, it affects “us” too. Those who knew the Old Testament Law – 10 commandments and more – simply knew their failure in more detail. By Romans 3:10 he can say “No one is acceptable to God”, – and that is serious .

So what’s the answer? Clearly not a set of rules, not a greater effort to be perfect. The good news is Jesus, who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sin. The acceptance we cannot earn we can accept as a gift, received by faith. Paul then goes on in chapter 4 to show how this worked out in Abraham. It was, he insists, Abraham’s faith, and not his achievements, that made him God’s friend and won his place in Jewish and Christian history.

So we come to chapter 5, and today’s epistle (we read Romans 5:1-11 ). Faith in Jesus, trust in his sacrifice for us, bring us reconciliation to God. It doesn’t mean we shall have an easy life – in fact it can bring persecution and suffering – but even then we shall have hope. When we think that Jesus died for those who were his enemies, we see something of God’s love.

This is not widely understood in our culture (perhaps not in any culture). Many people seem to think “Don’t worry about sin, it doesn’t matter, God won’t make a fuss!” But it does matter, and it separates us from a just and holy God. The answer is not forgetfulness, nor greater effort to be perfect – the answer is the sacrifice of Jesus, a gift we accept by faith. God does for us what we cannot do.

So what does a Christian life look like in these terms? Let me pass on a story:

Disillusioned with the view of God she had been taught, Karema began searching for spiritual answers as a young graduate. The wonder of God humbling himself and coming into the world as a man, sharing our experiences and pain, was crucial in Karema’s journey of accepting Christ as her Saviour. 

When her community learned of her belief in Christ, Karema realised she was in danger and fled her home country. She is now ministering to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, meeting practical needs and teaching the Bible to those hungry for spiritual truth, as she was once herself. 

Karema shared her story. She says, “They asked ‘Why are you so kind to us, what is behind this?’ so we explained how Jesus had put in our hearts to go and help the strangers.”

That sort of story is challenging to us, but I think it rightly understands the gospel. In the Thanksgiving prayer at the eucharist (Church in Wales, Lent) we say: “By Jesus’ grace, we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” It was living “no longer for herself alone” that raised the questions Karema answered with the story of Jesus.

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.

Change

“Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” (from today’s reading Mark 13:1-8) Jesus disciples are impressed by the Jerusalem temple – it was both large and magnificent, but Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? . . every one of them will be thrown down.” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 40 years after he spoke.

We don’t always enjoy change, and try to resist, forgetting that it is part – and a necessary part – of life. Whether you look at an individual person and the changes that come with time; or at their education, career and retirement, or at family structure – in each change is clear.

The disciples knew this of course, but if they thought religion might be a buttress against change, they were to learn differently. It is true that God does not change with the fashions, swapping his favourite virtues from generation to generation, or updating the 10 commandments for fear of seeming old-fashioned.

But the practice of Christian faith changes. Let me give you an example. Early Methodists lived at a time of gin shops – cheap oblivion to poor social conditions. Their response was teetotalism; Christians were not to drink, but to spend on their families, and help those in need. It is an advertisement for Christianity in Nepal today – drunkenness is a social problem, so again the Church is teetotal, and popular for it.

In Britain a century later, what had been a Christian virtue was sometimes an eccentricity. Now, I am happy to drink in moderation – but if I was a student? I’m less sure. I’m glad to see Street Pastors caring for the drunk.

It’s not that the Christian standard – avoiding drunkenness – changes, but its expression depends on social conditions. To say that God does not change is true and important. But to be faithful Christians, it is never enough to live in the same pattern as our ancestors in faith. Society changes; the key issues vary. The way we live has to express the love and purpose of God to the people around us.

A key issue is the question of security. The disciples may have seen the massive temple stones as an indication of permanence – which they were not. Jesus wants to give them, not a system or a ritual, but an education in spiritual reality which will make them secure, firmly based for the difficulties to come. He knows, and they must learn, that the only true foundation is God himself.

As we come to Christmas, I know someone will say to me, “I do love the traditional carols (or . . ) they’re what Christmas is about” – and I will struggle to know how to say. “No, it’s not carols, it’s God living with us that gives us the security to adapt our lives to serve him in every generation.”

Jesus knew there would be problems – false teachers, wars. More important, he knew that security was not in changelessness, but in God himself.

Commitment!

Talk about commitment is not the sort of subject that makes you friends. Its so difficult to get right – it seems hard to please everyone. People tell you that you have to be committed in your relationships – you must make time, keep promises, be reliable even when others let you down. And, well you might manage that, if it wasn’t that – they say much the same thing at work, or in education, or even if you volunteer. “We want your commitment”, “You must give this priority”, “no excuses, 110% effort”.

Ah well, perhaps you can take some time off – sport, music, maybe a club of some sort. What happens? – we expect you to be there for training, practice, matches, concerts, evenings out. You have to be reliable, you’re no use unless . .  Instead of being relaxed, you find yourself exhausted. And that’s why we celebrate Christmas. Yes really.

“In the beginning was the one who is called the Word” (John 1:1-18) Right at the start, God is into communication – not shouting orders from a safe distance, but keeping in touch.  He creates, and in his creation is light.  But the real celebration is about commitment – His commitment to us, not ours to yet another responsibility!

“The Word became a human being and lived here with us” (verse 14)– that’s commitment for you! God comes to share our life, with all its risks and problems. The commitment shown in the Creation, in all the help and encouragement at critical moments, now takes baby form. He lives with us, he dies for us. That’s what we celebrate; that’s why we celebrate. His commitment, not ours. Later, we can ask about how we respond, but for the moment, just enjoy it!

Prayer (Proper 12, Pentecost 10)

Jesus prayed, and what his disciples saw made them want to pray, too.  (Was it the effect on Jesus, or the renewal of his power or creativity, or just so much part of his life?  We aren’t told.)

The instructions he gives in Luke 11:1-13 are short.  This is no “formula”, but teaching to be pondered and understood.  (Compare the account in Matthew 6, and you will find rather more words, but the same impression of an outline).

The familiarity of the words to many of us can blunt their impact.  They start, not with us, but with God.  That is important. We might be happy to dive into our problems, requests, worries – but we are told to begin with God.  (God as “Father” may cause problems to those whose parent was not much loved – but we know of good parents.  A parent remains one with power, perhaps to direct our behaviour, always to know what we are, and have been.  It is not an equal relationship).

We are to communicate, understanding that God is somehow personal, contactable, and involved with us. Luckily, as with a good Father, we are known and understood. Still, there is the effort of seeing another person’s point of view, and what plans and directions we may need to hear, and then obey.  We have to listen, as well as speak.  (Though many Psalms suggest that we can expect a sympathetic hearing when words pour out in pain or anger, with little hearing.)

After beginning with this mysterious and wonderful other, we are encouraged to ask for what we need.  The following verses (5-13) underline this.  Ask – the Father wants to give us what is good.  Good, not necessarily indulgent.  Good, for life in service of the Kingdom, and life which finds its real purpose.  The parable is about finding the means to be hospitable, not about living comfortably.

That brings us to forgiveness.  We ask for it, with a strong reminder, not only of our need for being forgiven but also of our need to forgive others, reflecting the grace we receive!  It is a demanding line, but one close to the heart of Christian living.  How can we, who hope for heaven only by being forgiven, criticise or look down on others who need forgiveness too?

Let’s not forget the last line, that we are not lead into the time of trial – or temptation.  No, of course our heavenly Father is not making trouble for us.  Remember Jesus words to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane – Luke 22:39-47.  Twice Jesus uses this phrase (v40,46), and the meaning is clear.  Temptation may come in many forms, all dangerous.  We ask the Father’s help to come through the hard times with faith.

So, what’s the problem?  It is not that prayer is complicated, rather that we all find good relationships hard, and honest communication demanding.  God is as close as a good parent, but the stakes are high, the distractions pressing.  But the disciples wanted to learn; it must have been something important for Jesus, and for them.