Tag Archives: grace

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.

Ultimate Relating

If you find yourself stuck in a waiting room with a pile of old magazines, which page do you turn to? For many, the Agony Aunt or problem letters page. Why? Because relationships fascinate us. They make the soaps popular on TV, sell fiction . . and that ought to be an attraction and selling point for the Christian understanding of God.

God matters; our society attempts to ignore God, but he will not disappear. Let me suggest why God should fascinate and be in our conversation and thought far more than seems to happen:
If your picture of God is a sad and lonely old man, or even worse, a nasty and rather spiteful individual, forget it! God is not an individual, but a relationship.

Yes, that’s right. From New Testament times, there was a realisation that Jesus was not just a prophet or religious leader, but that what he claimed – and did – was outrageous and dangerous unless he was, truly, God. Jesus forgave sins against God; Jesus interpreted the Law in new ways; finally he replaced the Old Covenant with a New Covenant. Later, the Father – Son God was understood to be a Father – Son – Spirit God. There is a hint in 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, or hopefully 11-14, which we read today:

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”

2 Corinthians 13.14

(and another in Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”).

Relationships are difficult. We get them wrong, misunderstand, argue. God is a relationship that works in such perfect love and communication that three work together as one. God is one, God is three persons – mind blowing, but amazing, wonderful – and very much something we need to ponder, learn, imitate . . . and advertise!

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

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.

Back to (Super-) Normal.

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our reading (we read Ephesians 1:3-14 this Sunday) will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to 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 our trespasses, according to the riches of his 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? Because it doesn’t fit with a sentimentalised 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 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 fairy tale, 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 have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 1:11,12

A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Recipe for action

Imagine what it would be like if every Christian was confident in their faith. I mean confident, not bumptious or aggressive – indeed confidence would let them listen to other views and other ways calmly. What sort of a church would result from people who took seriously 2 Timothy 1:1-14, starting with verse 7? Let’s think about it.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young and possibly rather diffident leader in the church. He gives thanks for his faith, and v 6,7

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

God’s Spirit fills us with power. Not like Superman – or the Amazing Hulk. Not power for display, but to get things done. Paul talks about witnessing, about not being ashamed of Jesus. That’s an important part of Christian confidence. “I may not have got all the answers, and I’m not holding myself up as perfect, but I can recommend a Saviour.” It takes power to make that recommendation graciously, whether it means speaking up in an awkward silence, or being consistent about living differently to others.

But it’s not just power, love is needed. What has love to do with confidence?

God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

God’s love is what has saved us. A love for the unlovely. A reason to know that we are valued, that we have a place – and not because we pretend to be something we are not, but because God makes us something we are not. If the Spirit fills us with love, the competition to be more important, more successful, loses its point. We can love and accept others because we are loved and accepted.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. s not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.”

Self control? Paul was no control freak. He travelled the Mediterranean, and there were no timetables (and no travel insurance). Paul’s life was flexible, but there was a discipline there to get things done. He said that it was not what he achieved, but what God did in and through him, and together they worked well.

Self-control is no easier to find than power or love, but we are told that these are things the Holy Spirit gives and develops as we live as Christians. It’s not a passing or accidental reference in verse 7, because verse 14 underlines it:

14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

That needs no explanation. We need confident Christians, filled by the Holy Spirit with power, love and self-control. Don’t just think about it; do it!

Boasting?

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” is a strange statement. We are used to boasting, and more elaborate ways of “showing off”, and find it normal for the rich and successful, for celebrities, and sometimes would-be celebrities. But this is Paul, in the last chapter of his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 6:1-16 or 6:7-16).

Paul is making a point, being annoyed by those who have tried to lead the Galatian Christians away from the gospel he preached to them. He insists on emphasising Jesus. And so he refuses to state his own claims to respect and fame. He points them to the centre of faith – and it’s not in themselves, or any other teacher.

But I wonder how we react? We could dismiss this line as a bit of religious jargon. If, instead, we take it seriously, there is a challenge. What am I pleased with in my life? What do I think I have done well? What are my successes and strong points? Could I answer “Jesus and his death” to any of these, let alone all of them?

I am not suggesting that we have no good points or successes! But the overwhelming importance of God’s grace, of being rescued and loved, rather than achieving . . This takes some thinking through. Looking in that direction, rather than at our own goodness, will help motivate our work for those who most need our “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Similarly, a thankfulness for what has been done for us will help avoid a return to selfish living, and the danger of becoming “weary in doing what is right”. Perhaps we need to think of a way of saying, in jargon free language, “the best thing about me – is not me”.