Tag Archives: hell

Stand firm

(Philippians 3:17-4:1) “Hold fast!” – “Stand firm!” it sounds a bit like a battle, and so it is. You can see that in the gospel reading today (Luke 13:31-35), as Jesus refuses distraction in the work he has to do before he goes to Jerusalem to die. Paul’s words to the Philippians sound less military, but. .

“Keep on imitating me” Paul says. We might prefer “Keep on imitating Jesus”. But, then as now, many don’t know Jesus to follow, and look to us to see something of him. It’s a big responsibility – we know we fail, but that is part of it. How to fail, repent, and go on – that is very important.

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” What a strange way of putting it! (We’re back to the battle) Doesn’t he mean enemies of Christ? Perhaps, but as he explains in verse 19, we see he means not only a selfish life, in opposition to Jesus teaching; but also the complete opposite of his example. Jesus gave, they take.

The enemies of Christ’s death on the cross live for themselves: food, drink, money, sex, comfort, ambition, power, ME and mine.

“Their end is destruction” – “They are going to end up in hell” – Paul’s words, but pretty blunt. We might say its a “dead end”; but we need to take seriously the consequences of going that way. There has to be an alternative, and there is.

“But our citizenship is in heaven” Simple, yet important. This – this world, this job, this text – isn’t where we have to succeed, or fail. Jesus death on the cross opens up for us a new horizon. He found reason to live for us and give for us, even to the extent of that death. As we learn to follow, we find more important things than ME and mine. God’s love is worth more than a promotion; serving with his people is worth more than comfort or power.

We don’t find it easy to teach children to share – toys, or parents, or anything else. We don’t find it easy to teach Christians, even when they say they are committed to being disciples of Jesus, that their lives must follow a different Way to the rest of the world. A better Way, but one which involves discipline and sacrifice to achieve more wonderful things on earth, and in heaven, our place as Citizens of Jesus Kingdom. It’s not just that there are one or two things we don’t do, and some little habits (like prayer and services) we add on. The Christian Way is a whole attitude to life, sometimes difficult and demanding, but worth everything.

Paul was close to the Christians in Philippi – but even there he had to remind them about Christian behaviour, and the need to “stand firm in the Lord”

Standing firm, but in the Lord, not in unchanging tradition. Philippi was a Roman colony – they would understand about being citizens of somewhere else, and the benefits of that. But being citizens of heaven was something they needed to go on learning – as we do.

Generosity, groups and the Gospel

One of the things I value in Christianity, and in people, is generosity. Not so much a readiness to hand out money, as a kindness, a positive attitude – perhaps because I recognise an ungenerous streak in myself that I have to work on.  So it won’t be a great surprise that I enjoy Mark 9:38,39 at the start of this week’s selection (Mark 9:38-50). Unlike groups in his day, and ours too, Jesus refuses to allow a monopoly to “our group”. (It’s no use Joshua saying stop those 2 prophesying – Numbers 11:4-29).

Jesus explanation shows how it works – if they not only claim the name of Jesus, but are doing something good with his power, – then don’t stop them, they won’t be able to rubbish Jesus after that. There is nothing here about those who use other “powers”, some of which are forbidden to Christians. Remember that Jesus is the greatest spiritual power of all – a fact which is the basis of Christian healing, and indeed exorcism (when, uncommonly in British society, that is needed). Those who work as his disciples share in something great; those who will not (whatever they write on the T shirt or headed notepaper) are useless.

You might think the passage then moves away from generosity. There is a series of sayings about damaging faith – (the Greek is “causing to stumble”, a word that gives us English “scandal”). In fact, it illustrates “ungenerosity” to others, and to yourself!

So, to damage someone else’s faith is desperately serious
and to damage your own, no less so!

What could do that? Does for example you liking for sport limit the energy you put into living as a real Christian – then it’s time to give up sport! (A bit of exaggeration? Yes and no. Your ability to play sport will decline with age; even watching it will become harder. Your competence in Christian living should increase to meet the critical challenge of God’s judgement). You may be able to reduce your commitment to sport, but if not, abandon it in favour of living Christianity.

Maybe it’s not sport, but TV, or insistence on “time for yourself”, or laziness, or some sin like dishonesty, immorality, or pride . . Whatever gets in the way of living faith – give it up! It’s the seriousness of the issue we tend to avoid. It’s not about “our group” – church being nasty to sportsmen, or actors, or . . ; it’s about losing faith, and finding our chosen life in danger of destruction. (“Hell” here is the Jerusalem rubbish dump, where there were always fires smouldering to consume the waste). God’s generosity is real – he wants us to live well, and to avoid that with other priorities is not just foolish, but dangerous.

You don’t want to be counted (by the only one who matters) as “rubbish”, your chosen lifestyle down the chute? Then be serious about doing faith!

Faith is always about Jesus, not the claims of one group against another. But that is no excuse for laziness or inaction; this is more serious than your career, or your human relationships – it may direct and change both, so – get busy!

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Forgive – again, and again

(The passage Matthew 18:21-25 is featured in the “Giving in Grace” programme: see http://www.givingingrace.org/Preach-Matthew! and the preaching notes http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf as well as Dr Jane Williams Sermon Reflections at http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

Peter is a good man; in Matthew 18:21-35 he has listened to Jesus, he is committed to him as his disciple, and he realises that forgiveness is important. But he wants to get it right, so he asks a question – a good idea!  He doesn’t ask “Do I have to?”, but he knows its difficult and – he wonders “How many times?” Jesus would be generous about things like that – make a suggestion – make it big. Seven? bit much, but a perfect number – surely that’s enough?

“Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven,”
but don’t get this wrong, Peter, you’ve got to see it like this. And so Jesus tells the story. The story is about a man who owes millions, and his helpless plight draws the pity of his creditor, who lets him off. [Note, by the way, that this is not pretending he wasn’t in debt – he admits it]

What about you – do you have anything that needs forgiving?
Let me see – I did lose my temper last week, and I was late taking my library book back, and I was a bit greedy ..
Get real!
I asked if you had anything that needed forgiving, and that’s not it!
You’re selfish. The one thing you’ll protect at all costs – is you. You’re cruel – maybe you wouldn’t hurt a fly, but what you’ve said about people, what you imagined doing to the bully, the way you’ve treated your rivals.
God made you, gave you life, – and you feel good if you give him a thought for an hour or two a month; you’re not even that fit.

OK, enough, this isn’t meant to make you feel bad – and you need to provide your own answers. But take it from me, you have plenty that needs forgiving, and it isn’t the trivia, it’s the real things you prefer not to think about – great scars of anger, resentment, and refusal to serve & obey.

Where were we? Oh yes, “Do I have to forgive?”
Jesus story makes us annoyed with the man, forgiven so much, who can’t pass on the blessing. Perhaps he’s shaken by the experience, perhaps he want’s to pretend it didn’t really happen.
Do you know people like that? “I know I’m not perfect, of course, but (BUT), compared with them, or them, or the people you read about . .

Get real! Don’t ever go there!
What Jesus explains to Peter is that forgiveness is not about the irritation of people who annoy us, rather it is about seeing other people as God sees us. We’re hopeless, but he won’t give up.  We’re stuck in a selfish, violent, self-pitying hell, until he opens the way to heaven and helps us on the way.  We are foul (if disguised) until he starts cleaning.  We depend on a God who knows all this, and loves and acts to help.

OK! Peter, Andrew, anyone else listening – how should a person like that deal with other people they find less than perfect? Don’t count to 491 and let them have it.  Count to heaven, and let them have that.