Tag Archives: judgement

Weigh it up

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters (and we continue our reading of 2 Corinthians with chapter 5:6-17):

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6

It seems that Paul is thinking of death – whether because of his age, illness, or opposition which might secure his execution. If in the past he as assumed (and wrote as if) he would be alive at the return of Jesus in glory, he now wonders about the other alternative. Not a favourite activity, but sometimes useful

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Corinthians 5:9,10

This is not to deny that we are saved by faith through grace. The Christian who lives by his belief is safe, but our life work as Christians will be judged. Paul explained it in 1Corinthians 3, using the example of a builder working to build on the foundation of Jesus:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

For Paul, this is a motive for Christian evangelism. He then goes on to a great statement:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

2 Corinthians 5:14,15

We’re dead – not because of some disaster about to happen. Because Jesus died for us, we die to a selfish life. All life is now for him, under his direction. We don’t “get” this all at once. Even if we say we are committed, over time we discover there are still bits of ambition, or things we want for ourselves, that have nothing to do with Jesus – and do not fit in with a life now lived for the one who died for us. Our sense of judgement changes:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:16,17

What makes a person amusing or boring; what decides our leisure activities, choice of work (employment, or volunteering); a new perspective. More than that,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

2 Corinthians 5:20

We are not trying to make other people like us, nor even to introduce them to faith as we know it (so that they learn our worship, our church life). We are ambassadors – for Christ. The aim: that they meet Him, and come to live for him – but in the way He directs, according to their situation, ability, gifts . .

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters. But he has some very important things to say!

Confidence

Confidence has taken quite a knock in the last year. For some of us, there is hope that we are emerging from the worst of the Covid disruption. But our assumptions about “normal” life have been shaken. Do we become cynical about everything? We can’t. We still have to make a living, be governed, and make decisions. To make decisions you take advice, even if you wonder about it.

“We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son.”

1John 5:9

Its good to have something more positive to talk about, (this week we read 1 John 5:9-13) and Jesus is certainly that. The focus of God’s care for humanity, he arrives after a long build up. The Old Testament journeys through creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, entry to the Promised Land, exile and return, . . And there are documents too: Law, Prophets, Writings – All point to Jesus: Messiah, Servant, Prophet, and much more. In his 40 days of appearance after the Resurrection he has explained the scriptures. Now, with his ascension, there is an ending (more to come – next week).

John in his letter explains how Jesus has given evidence of God, and of how God has spoken through Jesus of a way to Life.

“Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.”

1 John 5:10

This is more than an enthusiasm. Belief moves on to confidence as we put it into practice, and begin to see God at work. We can always doubt it, but that is still a vitally important step in the growth of a Christian life. We find it odd to think we might be judged for unbelief (look at the next verses), and yet if you know the story (and this is only for those who do) you must respond: favourably, to learn more, find life, and serve, or sinfully, not to be bothered; to resist a claim on time and energy.

John writes to Christian believers, not that they are perfect, but that believing and following Jesus is the key which gives life, now and eternally. They know, as we do, that not only are there many who have not heard, but some who are deaf by choice, and so put themselves under judgement. His focus is not there, but on the Word of God. God’s Word to us is a human being, and much more. To have a trust in Jesus is to have much more, and the confidence that he will lead us and keep us safe in all our adventures with him.T

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.

Urgent Patience.

I suppose many of us wander between enthusiasms. Earlier this year climate crisis was in the news and attracting our attention (quite rightly!). Then the Covid pandemic edged it out of our attention, and now the possibilities of a vaccine feature alongside the varying estimates of what Christmas will be like.

The thought of Christmas might remind us that we aren’t yet ready. Present planning, card sending, and arranging family meetings are one thing, being ready for the coming of Jesus another. This pre-Christmas season of Advent is not just about preparing a celebration of Jesus’ birth, but of reminding ourselves of the promise that he will return, bringing an end to the world we know, with judgement, accountability, and the full arrival of the Kingdom he began on earth.

As we read 2 Peter 3:8-15, we are reminded not to get impatient. If some Christians in Peter’s time expected Jesus return rapidly, they needed to remember that the delay allowed time for repentance to some who needed it – and God was wanting to see them saved. We face the same temptation – “Will anything ever change? Don’t I just need to fit in with the way things are in the world around?”, with a firm answer that it is not the people around us who set our ambitions and standards, but God. The whole idea of Jesus return, and our readiness to give an account of our lives, and our use of all God’s gifts, is important and has an urgency – we are not promised any further warnings!

The urgency is real – this needs to be a priority now, not “when I get around to it” or “when life is less busy”. At the same time, we need patience. God does not have to explain the timing to us. If Jesus’ return happens after the end our our life, we have no complaint. Quite the opposite, we will have had more time to practise, more time to see the benefits and blessings of a life lived as a disciple, learning the ways of love and faithfulness. More time to advertise and recommend them. There is no place for panic, or frantic confusion. What we need is, yes, urgent patience. Urgent – being ready must be a priority, and move to the top of the “to do” list, but patience, to take time to learn, to repent, and to go on repenting and reforming all the areas the Holy Spirit highlights for our prayerful attention.

Is there an End?

Where will it all end? – and will there be tears? The early followers of Jesus came to believe he was the promised coming King, the Messiah. He spoke of God’s Kingdom. When he met opposition and slander, they found his acceptance of suffering, and then of a criminal’s death, difficult. His resurrection, and the Old Testament prophecies (not least Isaiah’s Suffering Servant), helped them to see it all as part of God’s plan to save.

So the Christians met, worshipped, and wondered – Where would it all end? It is a question, not only for their times, but for ours. It has been echoed by many in times of war, persecution, and suffering. Destruction, death and disaster add weight to it. What can we hope for? What is the point? Political or economic insecurity adds to the doubt, but Christians ought to have some answers settled. As we remember the consequences of conflict elevated into war, what hope of peace, of justice?

Christians remember Jesus identification of John the Baptist as Elijah, and understand the “Day of the Lord” as the day Jesus returns with power for judgement. That day is mentioned in Matthew 24 and 25, at the Ascension, and in 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5, (and today we read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) among other places. The language is pictorial, the main theme clear: Jesus return brings to an end this time of uncertainty and conflict. God will rule, and his enemies be disarmed and judged.

In the Old Testament (we read an example in Zephaniah, but it starts with Amos, and is reflected in many prophets) a popular idea of the Day of the Lord – when “our God” would come to defeat “our enemies” – is turned round. Amos insists that God is not impressed by the unfaithfulness of his people, and the Day of his Coming would bring judgement on them, as well as on others. (so Zephaniah 1:12 “I will punish the people who are self-satisfied and confident, who say to themselves, ‘The LORD never does anything, one way or the other.'” ) By the time of Malachi, the last words of our Old Testament: “But before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

When? We don’t know. 1Thessalonians 5:1,2 Suddenly and unexpectedly; but that is not to say we are unprepared. Paul speaks of a thief in the night. You don’t know when – but if you know he is coming, you can be ready. Valuables hidden or secure, doors firmly locked, people safe. We don’t know when, but we are to be ready. “We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1Thessalonians 5:8

The Kingdom of God – his rule of justice and love, is something great, to be looked forward to and celebrated (at least by those who try already to live its life). The Day it comes and replaces all opposition is beyond our imagining, and unlikely to be uncontested. We need to be ready,

Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

Who’s in Charge?

Who’s in Charge? – we usually ask when things aren’t working. No service, no progress, no satisfaction. Who’s in Charge? Last week, we looked at Romans 7, talking about the struggle within, knowing what we ought to do and want to do, but not always doing it. This week, on to Romans 8:1-11

“there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”

Romans 8:1

That has to be good news. Nobody likes being put down, and being judgmental is a sure way to unpopularity. But what does that mean? not everybody escapes, so who? The rest of our reading explains.

“Those who live as their human nature tells them to, have their minds controlled by what human nature wants.” Good News Bible, may be clearer than
NIV “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires”

Romans 8:5

This is what we might call selfishness – but might not always recognise. It can be like the child “I want this, I won’t do that, tantrum..” But it can also be the clever executive who plans their way to the top, by fair means or foul, stopping for no one, or even the charming and subtle person, who will never put themselves in a position they don’t want to be in, for anybody.

What does it mean to “live according to human nature” (other translations have “sinful nature” or “the flesh”)? It means:

  • “Who’s in Charge?” – I am!
  • “What are you going to do?” What I want to
  • “What’s life all about?” ME.

[Some years ago, Jane Williams surprised a Conference in Oxford. She was talking about Spirituality, and reminded us how popular it is, how every personality has their diet, their routine and personal space carefully designed. But it is all about their fulfillment, their career, their choices & ambitions. Christians shouldn’t have that, but a different thing, called discipleship, about following God, not our own choices.]

“To be controlled by human nature results in death;” or
NIV “The mind governed by the flesh is death”

but

“to be controlled by the Spirit results in life and peace.” or
NIV “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace”

Romans 8:6

God doesn’t leave us to do our own thing, and suffer other people doing theirs. His love finds a better way –

“For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death. What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin.   God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature.”

Romans 8:2-4 GNB

This is where we find what it means to “live in union with Christ Jesus”. We accept, not only that Jesus lived and died for us, but that our lives need now to be directed by his Spirit. This is what we ought to know as Christian life, or discipleship – but we don’t always recognise it. It is not being a doormat, trampled by everyone else. It is not failing to enjoy good and beautiful things. It is not letting our talents and abilities go to waste. Nor is it being very religious. But it is a new set of answers to those questions:

  • Who’s in Charge? God is, both of the big plan, and the details in my life
  • “What are you going to do?” What God wants
  • “What’s life all about?” God’s plan, which includes me, and the people I love, and much, much more.

Too often we try to fudge the issue with comments like “I’m not doing any harm”. This passage is much blunter:

“And so people become enemies of God when they are controlled by their human nature; for they do not obey God’s law, and in fact they cannot obey it.  Those who obey their human nature cannot please God.”
while for Christians it works differently
“But you do not live as your human nature tells you to; instead, you live as the Spirit tells you to—if, in fact, God’s Spirit lives in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ lives in you, the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God.”

Romans 8:7-8 and 9-10a GNB

The challenge for us is not to understand, it’s very simple: Who’s in charge? God, or your human nature. The challenge is to trust God, and let him control, and go on with that, so that he has more and more control, and we get more confidence to let him drive faster.

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Impact!

For Jesus first disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit was a moment of impact – confusion, transformation, power, awe. Fire and wind symbolise power, with an edge of dangerous uncontrollability.

But Jesus had warned them! (Only then, as now, it was one thing to hear the words, and quite another to experience the reality!). First (John 15:26-27) was the point about “testifying”. The Spirit gives evidence for God, and God’s activity in Jesus. It is so obvious in the change in the disciples that day. Peter made a great start on the Day of Pentecost. But today’s Christian disciples are also to give evidence by what they say, and what they do. Perhaps we are sometimes too hesitant.

There is more in John 16:4b-15. Jesus had to leave – among other reasons, to stop disciples wanting to find and ask him personally, rather than the Holy Spirit who could be in contact everywhere. The Holy Spirit has some important corrections to make to our understanding:

  • about sin – interestingly, about the refusal to accept and trust God in Christ. We are more hung up on morality and standards of behaviour. Without ignoring them, should we focus more on allowing a fuller and wider trust of God. What might follow from that?
  • about righteousness – Jesus returns to heaven vindicated and victorious. Against all those who said his way was not practical, not politically viable, not realistic, or just wrong, he parades the Father’s affirmation and approval of his way of life, teaching, and choice of the cross.
  • about judgement – because the “ruler of this world” (that’s Satan, representing all evil) has been condemned, the Kingdom of God starts here. There is judgement, but with a focus on sweeping away the false, rather than finding individuals to condemn (they have a warning and a little more time).

So the Holy Spirit brings truth, exposing the corruption and compromise of “worldly” fashion and wisdom. God is glorified, as his love in restoring what ought to be, and healing what is, is seen in action.

The arrival of the Holy Spirit had an enormous impact. It still does, when lives are changed, and communities opened to liberating truth.