Tag Archives: life

When Natural is bad.

I don’t recommend advertisements which seem to be keen on “natural” ingredients, because often natural things are excuses for bad behaviour: “It’s only natural”, “Doing what comes naturally” doesn’t often mean doing something good.

Paul knows about this, and offers a simple choice (we are reading Romans 8:6-11). You can live in one (but only one) of 2 ways: life according to the “flesh”, and life according to the Spirit.

“To set the mind on the flesh” means doing what comes naturally. It may have a veneer of respectability or sophistication, but it is ultimately selfish, competitive. It will love only if that is rewarding, be community minded only if there are benefits to the doer, and may at any point be cynical, greedy, or peevish. The only alternative is life empowered and directed by the Spirit of God. This is what makes the Christian life possible and rewarding (and not just a lot of hard work).

Someone will object that there is another alternative. What about following a moral code – like the 10 commandments? Paul has thought of that; indeed, as a pious Jew, he has lived it carefully for many years. He will say that such a moral code is good – indeed the Old Testament Law tells us vital things about what God is like, and what he expects of human beings. But if it is useful for that, it is absolutely hopeless for transforming us into people who can live like that.

It is all very well to know you ought to be patient, loving, joyful and generous. It is quite another thing to do it, and go on doing it! Either we lower our standards to “be reasonable”, or we find another way.

So we come back to this simple, and stark, alternative: You either live “naturally”, being selfish, or trying not to be, but discovering that there are tight limits on how much you can control yourself, or You live for God, handing your life (and all your resources) over to God’s direction. It’s a big step, but if you take it, go on taking it, and allow the Holy Spirit to control you, you should experience a slow transformation. It won’t happen fast, and it won’t solve all your problems, but you will begin to be changed. Not by your own effort, but as God works on your personality, your priorities, attitudes, and ambitions.

Paul defines a choice for you. You must answer which way you have chosen – and more important, which way you will now choose. Answer now for yourself, that you may be ready to answer to God.

Understood.

“You don’t understand what its like!” – perhaps we remember the cry as the typical complaint of the teenager. But it is not a feeling limited to the years of adjustment to adulthood.

Increasingly we hear people being pressured in their jobs, by managers themselves being pushed harder and harder for results. Too often the employee feels unheard and not understood as they are pushed.

More and more families are pressured by the varied wants and demands of different members. We are encouraged to be our own people and do our own thing – but no one explains how that will fit with the personalities and agendas of others with whom we share our lives.

There is a danger that church life can add to the problem: Live like this, support that, we must do more . . So Hebrews comes as a relief. (We read a short paragraph from the end of chapter 2 today – Hebrews 2:14-18)

Jesus shared our life. It was necessary for us to know he understands, even if he didn’t need that experience to empathise. A fully human – and not wealthy or favoured – life was lived before his death. And it was his death that set us free from the fear and power of death. Indeed, his death opens our way to new life.

If Jesus had not lived like us, there might always have been the suspicion that he didn’t – couldn’t – know what it feels like. We might have felt as if we were being shouted at by some drill sergeant, who had no intention of running the course, or facing the enemy. But v17 “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” – an intermediary, bringing us back to God.

We read this encouragement with the story of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) – a helpless baby brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law. We are reminded of how fully Jesus was immersed in the life of a faithful Jewish family, and in time would take a full part in it. Of course, Simeon and Anna recognise something wonderfully out of the ordinary in this child. He will bring change, and fulfillment of many hopes.

The “growing up” of God’s plans for his people was not without some painful adjustments, just like the “growing up” of children taking their place in the adult world. The Messiah recognised in his mother’s arms turned out to be the Messiah who did not meet popular expectations, at least not in the way some looked for. People would struggle to understand the way God chose to work – as they have in every age, and still do. But at least we cannot doubt that God in Christ did “know what its like!”, and had every sympathy for what Christians would face and struggle with.

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?

Direction

It helps to know where you are going – whether on a walk, or a career or retirement plan. Stephen as he dies ( Acts 7:55-60 ) has a vision of Jesus in heaven, and knows that he is going to join him (which infuriates his opponents and seals his fate).

In John 14:1-14, Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for his followers, but Thomas seems confused – and I imagine he is not the only one.  Do you ever think of a door in heaven with your name on it? Think about it for a moment. Your place, ready and waiting. What do you think about that, what do you want to do as a result?

Thomas hasn’t yet understood what is going to happen to Jesus – why he must die and rise from the dead. Jesus will not push him faster than he can absorb it, but makes clear that he is central to everything, and Thomas needs to keep following.  (We know that he does, and gets there in the end – see John 20:24-29 ).

Phillip is is danger of going off at a tangent. He would like to see God. Perhaps he has some idea of being like Moses on Mt Sinai, glimpsing God passing by.  But Jesus is more important than Phillip has realised – Jesus shows God to us. Father and Son (and Spirit) work so closely together that to know one is to know the other.  Not only do you have your room in heaven, you work for God!

“those who believe in me will do what I do – yes, they will do even greater things” John 14:12. We are invited to see where we are going – how Jesus, at the centre of everything, not only gives us a place in heaven, but also involves us in his work on earth. We are told to ask. What are we meant to be doing, what is most important, what comes first?

Alongside that, What is God’s purpose for me, individually, – or for you? How does that fit in with the aim for my congregation and wider Church?  Perhaps we should be asking for particular gifts to use there in His service, or for openings to use the ones we know we already have. Perhaps we need the courage to offer them, or the energy to do it!

It helps to know where you are going – and heaven can’t be bad, and you won’t get lost by accident. Stephen knows where he’s going, but Thomas and Phillip are finding out – perhaps like us. Let’s make sure that we keep Jesus at the centre of everything, and work on realising his aims for us as individuals, and our church as his working group.