Tag Archives: grace

Status – or Grace?

There is a comment on the gospel for Lent 5c here.

What is your standing? Or I might ask, What is your status? Are you important? Are you good? Should people take notice of you? Perhaps its not the sort of question we ask very often – at least, not as bluntly as that. Yet some people do seem to be more important than others, and we all have some idea why we might matter.

It’s significant when we look at our 2nd lesson (Philippians 3:4-14), part of Paul’s letter to a church he was fond of, at Philippi in Greece. While he was on good terms with the church and its leaders, it seems there were other teachers – perhaps travelling ones – wanting to insist that Christians lived fully as Jews, and kept the Old Testament law.

Paul gets quite worked up about it. He, of all people, could claim importance in traditional Jewish terms:
no adult convert, he had been born into Jewish faith, a member of a significant family. More than that, he had kept the tradition in its strictest form, as a Pharisee, and even worked against the Church in his enthusiasm.

But see what he says “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”.

What makes Paul important? Why should people take notice? Nothing about his background, nor his life achievements. He uses that phrase “confidence in the flesh” – not literally his medical status, but the human point of view, the one which rates people as “important” or “not worth the time of day”. He will have no compromise with these “teachers” who want to boast of their lifelong achievement in Jewish good behaviour. Nor will he let the Christians in Philippi adopt this way of thinking.

What does he say? “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Paul knows that his hope of heaven does not rest on his record of good behaviour, but on forgiveness won by Christ, and on grace – God’s gift. That is so important he will not compromise, or let any forget it.

He goes on to talk about persistence. “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. There should be changes in our lives for the better – but the transformation we have to allow, and continue to allow, is by God’s power through the Holy Spirit. It is not an achievement we can boast of.

I don’t know how you think about yourself, or other members of your community. I do know that Christian faith offers a big challenge to the way most people think. For Christians, lots of achievements others rank highly are really not that important, while faith, and a life of obedient service are vital. The Holy Spirit should be seen working on improving us, but that’s God’s achievement, not ours to boast about.
I wonder what the Philippians made of it all. I wonder if it makes sense to you, and whether you will be able to keep it in mind.

Faith

After 3 years of weekly comments on the gospel readings, I am moving on to comments on readings from the New Testament letters, while also referring you to earlier posts on gospel readings.

For Luke 4:1-13, see http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/lent/

In Paul’s letter to Rome, we read 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.” Romans 10:8-13

It is very simple. Our attempts at “being good” are never enough to win us God’s approval or get us out of trouble. We need something else – belief / faith / trust in Jesus. (We need several words because they get cliched). Just as a skier doesn’t walk up the hill – they take a cable car or ski lift. So in Christian faith, we don’t expect to get there by our own effort. It is the doctrine historically called “justification by faith”

So, all you have to do is say the words, and that’s it? No. “ For it is by our faith that we are put right with God; it is by our confession that we are saved”. Rom 10:11 The scripture says, “Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.”
To say “Jesus is Lord” was dangerous – Caesar was Lord, in Roman terms. To “believe that God raised him [Jesus] from death” verse 9 was not a matter of opinion; it was to recognise his significance, power, and authority. This faith that saves is a basic direction in life, more significant than adoption or marriage.

Does it matter what we do, then? Of course. You can help or hurt, be a blessing or a curse. Look at Jesus in the wilderness – he is trying to get it right, working out his trust in God the Father. [Or, if you are reading Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Look at the man bringing his produce to a Harvest festival, using words to recognise God’s gift of land and food].

If you are marking the season of Lent by some special or extra activity, it should be something that removes obstacles to God’s work in and through you. If you weren’t at all bothered to let Jesus control you, your faith would be in question – “Who are you kidding! “ we would say, “you don’t trust God, you keep preventing him doing anything!”.
But you can’t work it backwards, “I’m good, so I must be Christian”, not even “I’m good, and I believe in God, so I must be OK”. Not true – Jesus and the New Testament don’t say that.. Romans 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.”

Faith, as trust in Jesus and letting him control – that’s what matters. Being Good, or less good – that doesn’t work with God, it’s just something we deal with later. Understand these words from Romans properly, and they bring great relief. What God asks of us is not that we reach a standard, but that we trust him, and let him do the work.

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Wealth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

At all.

Be a blessing!

[many will be remembering Mary Magdalene, rather than using the Proper 11b readings this weekend, but for Mark 6:30ff . .]

Look at Mark telling us of Jesus popularity! (Mark 6:30-34 & 53-56). People wanted to see him and be with him; he was ready to teach them, and they to listen. There was healing, too. No doubt they talked most readily of losing illnesses and disabilities – but there must have been repaired relationships, and redirected lives, as well.

So why is it that Jesus later loses some of this, and today’s church is not hailed as a great place to enjoy, to learn, and to find wholeness?  The gospel will explain how opposition to Jesus developed into a plot to kill him, but I wonder if we fail to take seriously our call to be a blessing?  We are given so much, and – yes – chosen by God. What for? Because we are superior to others? Don’t fool yourself – there are many who work harder, deserve more, have greater potential.

We are given faith, to share and be a blessing. We are meant to be built into a living Church – always difficult because if involves personalities – a Church to set about God’s plans for our local community and its people. Welcome is not a Public Relations necessity for “successful” churches – it is part of faith!

When it works, it is lovely – the picture of people gladly welcoming Jesus, and enjoying the healing he brings, is not outdated. It remains difficult, because we so easily want to be “better”, because we find it so hard to be a blessing, and sometimes find it hard to see how to safeguard that from those who might spoil it.

The answer is not theoretical, but a commitment to follow Jesus. I don’t know fully what he wants me to do, but I’ll make a start on what I know. I don’t know how it will all work out, but I will trust that it does, and see hope and joy in that, better than any alternative.

 

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!

Readiness – and Remembrance

I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Ethelred the Unready. I know little about him – but his title suggests he was a very British king, and on the day we in Britain remember our War victims I am reminded of him. My impression – totally subjective and unrepresentative – is that whenever there is a war, the first months are spent in shock and complaint at how unprepared we are to fight. We shouldn’t be, but . .

Of course, you can understand why: there are always other things to do. The cost of a fighter plane, for instance, is huge – and there are always alternatives. We can do without a plane, say the planners, build a new school. Or think of the cost of a new warship – we could equip a hospital for that, so keep the old one going a bit longer . . So it goes on in peacetime, but when war threatens, we don’t like to admit it. Carry on as normal, we say; we don’t want to be seen as threatening, we say; to build up our forces would be seen as hostile, we say. And we go to war unprepared and underequipped. Wasn’t it the case that most of the troops who crossed the Falkland Is in record time had bought their own boots, rather than wear the army issue?

Wars, thankfully, come to an end. But sadly, we don’t seem to be much better at preparing for peace. We ought to be, but . . We’ve all heard of the hope of a “land fit for heroes” after the First War – and know of the grim reality of the Depression, the General Strike and mass unemployment. It seems that today a fair – unfair -proportion of the homeless are ex-services personnel. It also seems to be the case that many of those who engage in violent armed crime have learnt the techniques of combat from military training, but somehow have turned them to unintended use, or have not been protected from the traumas of conflict and its aftermath.

I can’t offer any easy solutions for these problems, but remember them this week as we read Matthew 25:1-13. Jesus tells a story about girls unready for the delayed arrival of the bridegroom. They shouldn’t be, but . . . Interestingly, they all sleep, but as they wake, some are found to be prepared and others not. Shouldn’t they have shared their supplies of oil, you wonder? Well, that depends what that oil represents. It may be that they are not unduly cautious, or mean, but that the oil is something which cannot be shared.

Jesus is thinking of the time when he will return; he is warning his followers to be prepared and ready. Matthew tells the story, knowing that the church can very easily get absorbed in the routine of now – church life, business life, the crises of family – they all provoke a drowsiness. They shouldn’t be like that, but . . . But what will happen when the big wake-up call comes?

Then we discover what people are made of. Faith is the key thing – and faith cannot be transferred from one person to another. Your faith can help other people, but they can’t take it over, or inherit it. When Jesus returns, he won’t only be hoping to find faith. He will look for those whose faith has made them open to grace, and in whose characters and lives the oil of grace has worked a transformation. They will have learnt love; their hope will not be easily discouraged. Humility will help them make themselves useful even in unglamorous work, and their gifts will be put to serve people wherever they are. These are the unsung heroes of wartime – and peace as well.

A crisis shows people up, and some have what it takes and others don’t. We are warned to stock up on the oil of grace while it is available – work with God now, while there is time. Today we remember the casualties of war. Many died young. We record our thanks for the opportunity they gave us to reach a normal span of years in freedom.

And the gospel asks:
have those years we are given brought us to maturity?
have we reached our potential?

Don’t talk about wealth or reputation, qualifications or family size. Talk about faith and character; about the way God’s grace has been received; the way the HS has produced fruit of character and the gifts of service. If we have got it right, we shall be ready:
ready to meet human crisis and disaster
ready for Jesus return to require an account of our stewardship

If not, we shall be selfish, offendable, fragile and proud.
“the bridegroom came, and those who were ready
went with him into the wedding banquet,
and the door was shut.” Mt 25:10

Invitation needs answering!

From time to time, people say the New Testament is useless to us because it is totally out of our culture. A half truth, which ignores the fact that human needs, and sin, don’t vary a great deal from age to age. Take today’s parable. [Matthew 22:1-14]  Unique to Matthew in this form (Luke 14 makes a different point in a story also about refused invitations), it does need some untangling and thought.

The first 7 verses tell of an invitation to a feast – refused, with the servant messengers ignored or ill-treated. This is clearly a reference to God’s invitation in Jesus (the marriage is of a Son). The destroying of the city may be a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.

Verses 8 to 14 seem rather different – the feast is full, but someone without a wedding garment is thrown out. This could be a problem – how is someone off the street expected to get one? Some suggest they were given out by host. Thus the refusal to wear it becomes a deliberate insult. (Documented at Mari, Mesopotamia). Others say clean clothes were expected, as a compliment, and a third group point out that clothes in scripture often symbolise character.

The detail is obscure, but the point is clear: the invitation is free – your great good luck is to get one you might never have expected. But you do have to do something; first of all, go! Even when you get in and are enjoying yourself, respect the host.

Is there anything here for us? I don’t think we’d have much difficulty understanding how unwelcome is a wedding guest who gets drunk while telling stories against bride and groom; or who arrives in dirty overalls smelling to high heaven!  Part of this story is about the consequences of our actions. In terms of our faith, how do our actions affect our relationship to God, and to other people? You can’t earn a place in heaven, but you can lose it by failing to take the invitation, and following-up appropriately.

Or you could say that those who depend on His hospitality need to remember to honour God. If you hope for heaven, then start behaving like it! Not sometime when you get round to it, or if you feel like it. More and more our twenty first century culture wants to tell God how to run the universe. We believe in heaven, not in hell. We believe in being forgiven, but not in forgiving. We believe that someone else ought to deal with young people, the financial crisis, illness and death – so that we are free to do what we want.

And God says, “Once there was a king who prepared a wedding feast . .” Listen to the story. Think it through and take is seriously.

  • There’s good news – a free invitation.
  • There’s reality – you need to do something about it, and in time.
  • There’s a warning – what you do will have consequences.

 

 

Rights

As last week, this reading, Matthew 20:1-16, is featured in the Giving in Grace programme sermon notes and reflections by Dr Jane Williams: http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf  http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

 

Beware of claiming your Rights! Why not, you might say – Health and Safety, Discrimination and other laws are meant to protect. Perhaps so, but as a state of mind it can be dangerous. If you begin to think about your relationship to God in terms of rights, it becomes ridiculous!

People are inclined to say they want justice. Believe me, you don’t. To get justice from God would be to be called to account. Are we up to God’s standards – of work, relationship, honesty . . Even one of them? No, not when you consider his standards. “I haven’t done badly” may be true, in comparison with those who did worse (we prefer to look that way) – but this judgement isn’t in comparison with them. It’s in comparison with God, and in that justice we are all guilty. We don’t want justice, we want mercy.

But you still hear it said so often, “Its not fair!”:

  • – that I should have to work so hard
  • – that I should have to deal with people like that
  • – that people should die before they are really old
  • – that I should be in the situation I’m in

“Not fair”? You could say it’s not easy, even that you need help to cope. But be very careful. We have some standards to try to limit the human abuse of humans. As far as they are practical they are good, and we may support them. But don’t be mislead into thinking that life is directed by your rights. Your life is not a right, but a gift, to be given as (and as long as) God chooses.

God did not put us on earth to judge other people, but to worship and serve him. We can never know the mind of someone else, or understand their motivation. What we can know, and be responsible for, is that each of us have certain gifts and opportunities to use – or to waste.

Today’s parable (Matthew 20:1-16) talks about the master’s goodness. A Denarius a day was a living wage, so he chooses to give a living wage to those who need to live – and gets complaints! That sounds familiar! Why complain – he had dealt according to his agreement, but jealousy and greed come in.  If Jesus chooses to work with people you find difficult – rejoice (he doesn’t find you all that easy!). If he is generous to a fault – don’t complain (we are getting the benefits of his generosity).  Sadly, we find complaint easy. We never realise how absurd we are, nor how dangerous is our attitude.

Beware of claiming your rights! With God, your right to a fair trial is a short cut to a guilty verdict. We need, not our rights, but mercy – and we need to show that as well as receive it.

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!