Tag Archives: grace

Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

Value

What’s the most valuable thing in the world? Gold, platinum, plutonium? Health, a brain that works? As Paul argues with the Church in Corinth (in 2 Corinthians 6:1-13), who rather prefer other teachers, he urges the value of grace, and the need to do something about it NOW. Not when we feel like it, or get around to it . . . but NOW.

That remains very relevant for us, as does

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; .

2 Corinthians 6:3,4

Some translations talk about “God’s servants” – as we all are; older translations use the word “ministers”, which again we all are, despite our different gifts and functions, as all serve to commend the gospel and make Jesus known.

Paul lists 9 trials in the next two verses – most of them we escape. But why did he have such a hard time? The same old reasons:

  • because people didn’t like being shown up
  • because the spiritual battle concentrates on opposition (who would you target if you were the devil? – the effective or the weak?)

We may not have such a dramatic list of hardships, but need to remember that both our taking the opportunity of God’s grace, and our service / ministry of sharing the good news of Jesus, will attract temptation, opposition, and unfair criticism. Paul’s response is not to withdraw, or appeal for pity. He understands what is going on, and finds fulfillment in the struggle.

in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;

2 Corinthians 6:6,7

define how it is to be done, and the next three verses see a paradox. The response is varied, but there are opposites in evidence. Yet this is nothing more than following the leadership of Jesus, who experienced the same acceptance / rejection, fame / infamy, acceptance / rejection.


This part of 2 Corinthians is very much a part of Paul’s struggle in the first century with the Church he founded, which tended to divide into groups and find other teachings more attractive than true Christian faith. Yet it remains appropriate for us. The appeal not to waste the grace of God, but to act now – that is vital when so many put off making decisions or commitments. The encouragement to serve by commending Jesus, even though it brings spiritual opposition – here is explanation and encouragement for the work we must set about together.

There is no comfort blanket offered here, only the most valuable thing in the world (free), and the way to use it successfully.

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.

A new normal

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our readings will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians (we read Ephesians 1:3-14) begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work! (even socially distanced work!). Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at Christmas. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of Christmas lead on? Apparently not, in the secular / supermarket / primary school version.

And why not? It doesn’t fit with a sentamentalised version of the story. But why should it? Surely our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not the story we have re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – bloodthirsty rulers and, yes, a baby born to die. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving Christmas and going back to normal routine. But while the world leaves a fairytale, ruined by reality, we take with us the strength gained from the story of God’s coming. We know that his coming is just the first part, and there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

“In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Really?

At first sight, the opening of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:3-9) is very strange. Paul knows full well that there are lots of problems in that congregation. In the following chapters he will touch on the various cliques dividing the group, on his own position as a leader, sexual immorality, litigation, confusion about Christian status, freedom, discipline, complacency, worship, the resurrection . . . We can just imagine the sort of article a local paper might write now if it got wind of half those goings on!

Of course, this was Corinth, the seaport where everything happened, and the Christians were new to this faith, and only just exploring what it meant for them. They weren’t a well educated or wealthy group.

Paul isn’t joking when he talks about the grace they have been given, or the fact that they “do not lack any spiritual gift as [they] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” They may still need to learn how to use some of those gifts. Certainly they have a good deal to learn about what Christian behaviour involves. But they have been given so much, and Paul is quite honest as he gives prayerful thanks for what has begun. – Not only begun, for he has confidence that a faithful God will continue, and bring them “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

That is probably the point for us, too. We can look at the list of failures in that ancient church, but may be less ready to face the failings of our own! If we were really such good examples of Christian life, would there not be more questions – that is positive questions, from those outside who want to know about the sources of our hope, love and faith? The reality is that every church organisation, each congregation, is less than perfect. But as we work and pray through that, is it not also true that we have been given grace, for which we might properly be thankful? Is it not also true that “we do not lack any spiritual gift”?

Yes, we might like to draw up a list of what we would like. But do we actually believe God has left us without anything we need for Stage 1 of our progress from this point in faith and time? Or are we just refusing to pray and see the first steps of our way forward, a way which may be less familiar in a post-Covid world?

Paul gave hearty thanks for what God had done and was doing for a poor and struggling church, at the same time as they were causing him some anxiety and problems. We also live in a world of less than perfect Christians and congregations, but can we give thanks for what God has done, is doing – and is now ready to lead us forward from?

Challenges.

One of the dangers of my Church is that it has such nice people in it! So easily it can become a club of well-meaning and like minded people. If we were all long sentence prisoners, slaves, or addicts our need would be clearer and less escapable. Paul would understand the danger. He has quite a record of achievement, – lays it out in Philippians 3:5,6. (Today we are reading Philippians 3:4-14). Yet he chooses to rely instead on Christ. There are several challenges here, but also much comfort.

First, a challenge to think about Christian achievement ( and to think about it more than secular achievement). We note people of significance – those with academic distinction, high office, or public achievement. We are not so good at celebrating those who persist faithfully in unpopular, underfunded or badly managed enterprise. The care worker who makes extra effort, and so on . . . Alas, we are less good at honouring those whose faith and Christian service are of lasting significance. I don’t mean we should resurrect the forgotten saints of past times, but that we need to think about our priorities – the more when Paul’s ambitions seem odd. The comfort here is for those who will never wear a medal on earth, but whose reliance on Christ earns them a heavenly record.

Secondly, a challenge about where our confidence should rest. Could we say with Paul we don’t care about our social status?

 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.

Philippians 3:7

The comfort? It’s never too late to start. Disciples change! Part of this (or is it another point?) is the righteousness which comes from faith, rather than law (verse 9). The challenge is to rely on grace, forgiveness, Jesus, not on being “good” or respected. It is a good deal harder than you might think. The comfort? For those who find it hard, they can look to Jesus.

Is it time to stop yet? Perhaps, but a final challenge is keeping going to reach the goal verses 12-14. We haven’t arrived yet; we can’t give up and rely on our past. The comfort – yes, once again, it is never too late.

Paul was a great challenge, even insult, to his contemporaries. His transfer from Pharisee to Christian won him many enemies, much misunderstanding. We need to face up to his challenge – perhaps it is not his but Christ’s – to “conventional” religion. There is comfort, too, but only when we take seriously the call to “regard whatever gains we had as loss because of Christ”

DIY Life?

Most of us will have a go at fixing things, though some are better at Do It Yourself than others, and there is always that difficult question about when it is better to call in a professional. That might be a way of seeing Romans 10:5-15. There are those for whom life is definitely a DIY project. They have some instructions, gathered from somewhere, and they are going to get on with it (or perhaps will when they get around to it). Then there are others, who have called in the expert, and God is in control.

That, at least in my mind, is one way of describing the difference between the Jewish people Paul agonises about, because they refuse the offer of grace in Christ, and the “outsiders” who have happily accepted the gospel he preaches.

We might think of those who enjoy gardening. Some will try to force their plot to conform to a plan, while others will encourage and allow what seems to fit, assisting, but knowing that they do not control, or even fully understand how it works.

Or we might consider two people, living in neighbouring houses. One lives in his own house, and is proud of it. The other knows very well that he was not the architect, nor the builder, (nor even the person who paid the bills), but is happy to live there and enjoy the facilities, discovering new features as time goes on.

You will gather that, although Paul is concerned with the situation in his own time where the Christian message has proved much more acceptable to Gentiles than to Jewish people, the issue is wider than that. The gospel speaks of a belief, or faith, (and we might want to say “trust”) which allows God to work in us and our lives. Just as the Old Testament covenant (the Law) was freely offered to guide God’s people – but had been taken as a sign of privilege and superiority – so the gospel is freely offered to all. For Jewish people, it was hard to accept that non-Jewish “outsiders” were being offered salvation freely, on just the same terms as they were. The issue hasn’t gone away, because there are still some people who think they are privileged, or deserve something better than others for some reason. Sadly, there are even people in churches who think in this way! They imagine that their morality, or hard work, or something makes them more deserving – when God is wanting to be generous to all.

Some enjoy DIY, and some quickly call for a professional. It is true life has to be done in person, but we are offered expert help, and free! The offer has to be accepted, and acted on (not put off until . . ), but it is real. And for those who can see it, it lines up with what God was intending all along. He was always giving, to help people to freedom and full life.

One of the delights of a garden is being able to share it with others – swapping ideas, and sometimes produce and seeds as well. Romans 10:13 turns to the need for messengers. Even though the news is good, not everyone will receive it. But it still needs to be given, talked about, and shared in every way possible. Every Christian has to be an advertisement for their faith and their Lord.

Some will know that my wife and I support and sometimes speak for the organisation called SAT-7, which organises Christian TV produced by and for people in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a great organisation, bringing together many denominations and traditions to use satellite TV to share good news, helping people understand Christian faith, but also modern family life, and appropriate responses to many family and life situations. There are programmes for children, teens and families, in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi (Persian). If you are not familiar with it, do visit www.sat7uk.org

Choose your team!

I’m not really “into” football. I can enjoy watching the occasional match, or highlights, and see the skill and planning. But I don’t support one team, and somehow it seems that it’s not a sport where you can just enjoy watching, you have to be a supporter.

I wonder if Paul would have used that metaphor when in Romans 6:12-23 he argues with those who can’t understand grace. “What!” they say, “If we are saved by grace through faith, there is no point in being good at all!”. Paul is horrified. The point of the new life is that it is “in Christ”. Just as we are set free by his death, so our freedom is to live his new life. That new life is not about earning approval by being good and following the rules, but it is certainly about sharing his love, and using the gifts of the Spirit in the service of God’s Kingdom wherever we are.

The comparison Paul does choose in these verses is slavery. If, having been a slave, you are set free – then life can go different ways. You can fall back into slavery, because you run into debt and are sold to make a payment. Or you can make the most of your freedom.

But it is wider than that. Think of walking up a mountain ridge. On either side, the ground slopes down, gently at first. You can go either way. (One way represents “the way of righteousness, leading to holiness”, the other impurity leading to “ever-increasing wickedness”). Once you start down, left or right, it is easier to go on in that direction, and takes more effort to move back. The further you go, the more you lose sight of the other side. It is just the way things are. Christian freedom can be diluted by the pursuit of pleasure, until the individual becomes ensnared, and all sight of a life of holy love and service is lost. But a life which looks to what God is doing becomes ever more interested and involved in that.

Paul knows that we are not simple characters, and will go on to talk about that. But every life can be searched for an aim, a big ambition. Here he reminds his readers that they all have something to be ashamed of in their former lives. Now that they have been freed by the love of God, so they should use these newly released lives to search out and share all the goodness available in this Saviour.

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?”

The God who smiles First

We have many different pictures of God. Sometimes they give stern suggestions of the never-satisfied perfectionist; sometimes they are more tolerant of failure, even expecting our poor performance. Too often they reflect nothing more than our human experience, and the feeling that “you get out what you put in”. But we want – need – more than our imaginings, based as they often are on our experience growing up.

Through this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary, we shall be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, starting from chapter 5. (Today we read Romans 5:1-8). Romans has had a profound effect on many Christians through the ages, perhaps because it was written to a church Paul had not started, and gives a more systematic account of his belief and life.

At any rate, Romans 5:8 gives us a clear view of God

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Romans 5:8

Whatever our background suggests God might, or even should be, here is fact. The Christian God is the God who smiles first. Not waiting for us to be ready, or make an effort, Jesus comes to earth and dies for us. It is the most generous welcome to a new life – but without force. The offer is there. It remains open. But it can be accepted or declined.

The Christians in Rome already had some idea of this, and also knew that the Christian life with God was not entirely easy. Free of guilt and confident of being loved, they faced all the ordinary difficulties of life, and the threat of persecution as well. Paul won’t let them be depressed about that:

“we also glory in our sufferings”

Romans 5:3

Hard to justify? Well, read on. These Christians are not just those rescued from danger, as if to remain feeble and traumatised. They are being grown into strong disciples, to share hope and love. The Christian picture of God is of a God who smiles first, and with good reason.