Tag Archives: love

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.

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!

Most Important!

Paul writes to Colossae, a place he has never visited, with a church founded by someone else. He’s heard that things are going wrong – there is a group whose teaching is seriously different and dangerous – it has all sorts of things: a bit of Jewishness, claims to “advance” beyond apostolic Christianity, mystical teaching about angels, and an “in-club” exclusivism.

So what does Paul have to say to all this, the threat to his teaching, and the true gospel? (You might want to read Colossians 1:1-5 now, the first part of the reading Colossians 1:1-14). Paul doesn’t seem as worried, or as negative, as I was! He wants to give thanks, and picks out faith (one commentator suggests – “Christian confidence”) and love, based on the hope of heaven.

He seems to put his hope for their future in these things, rather than a careful campaign against the false teachers. He will have more to say about them and their teaching, but there’s no panic. This is more important.

When we get to verses 9 and 10, his prayer is not for victory over the others, but for knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and understanding. Is this so that they can put other people in their place? No. It is so that they can live properly, and do good deeds.

Paul really seems to think this is most important, as if it brought some protection, some benefit. And there’s one more thing. He talks about rescue, being set free, having sins forgiven. And he says God has done that! His opponents would have said that people needed “spiritual development” or some such thing. Paul says – the important things are simple and positive: God has set us free, given forgiveness in Jesus (as Epaphras said). So they (and we, overhearing this conversation by letter) should take advantage, and hold onto that!

Faith, love, the assurance that even when it is hard to do right, its value is never lost in heaven, where all will be safe – these are the imp things. So why am I reading bits of Colossians 1? Because I too easily see the negatives, and worry about how to react. What I find here is a reminder of the simple goodness and reliability of the gospel.

Accept what God has done, and offered you by faith – be sure you accept, and have confidence! Trust God (always more than “people” or “plans”), and love one another. Of course it will sometimes go wrong, but those things are so important!

Creation matters

You might wonder why Christians bother with thoughts of Creation. If so, it may help to think about alternatives to the story we have heard (in Genesis 2:4b-9 and 15-25):

  • many now seem to think the universe is an accident explained by science. It has no purpose, people have no significance, and there is no basis for love or justice unless we pretend to find one.
  • Others don’t care about causes. They just believe that “Might is Right”, and what matters is to be on top of the pile, not the bottom
  • and some think that if there is Fate or god, it is no friend, and may even be out to catch them our or get them!

So: part of the Good News we have to share is about God, who in love creates. Though we have done some damage, the universe was well and beautifully made. It shows God to be wise, powerful, and to understand and plan in ways quite beyond our little minds!

Of course, there is an element of threat in this. It means this is not my world – it does not revolve around me, my wants, my ambitions . . God the creator owns it all. Even “my” possessions. Even “my” life. That makes quite a difference to the way we see things. You may notice in John’s vision of heaven, Revelation 4, that it is not all about family reunions and eternal holiday – the throne of God is central, and worship is what is happening.

Similarly, the God who chooses to make man and woman in his own image dignifies every human – even the poor, disabled, refugee, handicapped, criminal . . It is not for us to change his priorities.

So I hope you are beginning to see that Creation – the Christian understanding of a God of power and love who chooses to make us and our surroundings – is important. We have to come to terms with not being in control, with not having owner’s rights. Yet, this is Good News, just as the disciples in the boat that stormy day (Luke 8:2-25) discovered it was wonderful to be with Jesus, who understood their panic, and was able to put things right. Just as Adam and Eve found out, when even after their rebellion (Genesis 3: “We don’t have to be told what to do by Him!”) God acts in love to provide first, clothing, and a future salvation.

Belief in a Creator God does not mean we don’t have to bother about the way we treat the Earth and leave it for future generations. The knowledge that we are managers, or stewards – of the universe, as well as our lives and possessions – puts us in a good place. We have a responsible job, and excellent support!

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?

The best gift

When Jesus commands us to love one another, (John 15:9-17) we are rather inclined to hear it as an instruction to “be nice”. Being nice is what you are supposed to do – you help old ladies cross the road, and lend your neighbour a pair of shears across the garden fence. And it’s not at all what Jesus was talking about. We read these verses often on Remembrance Sunday, because of verse 13 about laying down one’s life for one’s friends. That is rather more serious; it brings memories or thoughts of war, hardship, and yes, of death. But Jesus wasn’t a soldier, and while his words may have encouraged acts of heroism, he wasn’t thinking of falling on a grenade or crawling under fire into no man’s land.

CS Lewis made a useful comment when he pointed out that you can’t feel warm affection for someone just because you are told to. Very sensibly he said that if you are commanded to love someone, the answer is not “But I don’t even like them!” so much as “What would I do if I wanted the best for them?”

Jesus defines love in terms of what he has done for the disciples. As far as we know, he never bought flowers for anybody, sang songs, or cooked dinner. In fact he was often hard on his friends; he expected a lot of them, pushed them into situations they would rather not have faced. He wanted the best for them, and the best was faith and discipleship. And he never asked more than he gave.

So what does it mean for us to love one another? Not just kindness and sympathy, but much more. Jesus gave his disciples the opportunity to know God. His life, and death, and resurrection, were for a purpose – and it wasn’t something he just fancied doing, or some ambition that he could achieve to feel good about it. He lived for us, died for us, rose so that we might find our way to heaven as his disciples.

To love someone would be to want the best for them. And what would be the best?

  • – well, it wouldn’t be to have to endure our bad temper, tantrum, or dented ego
  • – but neither would it be “anything for a quiet life”
  • – the best thing we could give anyone would be God, or at least a knowledge of God, a true understanding, a ticket to heaven.

So why don’t we see love in terms of giving faith? We know, of course, that we can’t force people and must not try. But Jesus didn’t do that either. We know that it’s difficult, because it means acting unselfishly, and that doesn’t come easily. But Jesus had some temptations about that in the desert. We think we’re not going to find the words, which ought to make us more determined to get our example right. But somehow we worry about that too.

Jesus was kind to people, he healed some, was gentle with others who were frightened. But he had no doubt that what was important in his life was teaching, and dying, and rising.

We are commanded – not advised, encouraged, or persuaded – commanded to love in the way he loves. That means we must want the best for other people, and the best is to share faith in him. That’s daunting. It means changing our behaviour and our conversation, adjusting our priorities. And that’s why we are allowed the rest of our lives to work it out.

The Climax

(There is also a Dialogue Sketch on this gospel passage, which you can read here.)

If you watch films classified as “Thriller”, or read paperbacks, you expect a Climax: chase, showdown. But you don’t know how it will start, or what form it will take.  This week, Passion Sunday, we find out how the gospel will climax.  Jesus will die.

The arrival of “Greeks” (John 12:20-33) – probably not Jews – seems to make Jesus aware of what is coming, and he talks of the death of a grain of wheat, and recoils in horror, (verse 27), before seeing the glory of God in this.

This is the climax of the gospel. This death, unjust, inhumanly cruel, marking the apparent victory of all that is against Jesus and the Kingdom he announces – this is the glory of the Son of God. That is exactly what they mean. Jesus is not going to march into Jerusalem as King and replace Herod, or Pilate, or even the High Priest. He will allow himself to be captured, condemned, flogged, and crucified. Then he will rise. No wonder he hesitates.

We still find this odd, and also recoil. How can this be? What sort of success is this? The answer is history – history we prefer to forget! Jesus’ Kingdom does last, and offer better hope to all, than any other.

And then there is this odd verse about judgement. John 12:31 “Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown.”  How can the cross bring judgement? Remember John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour”. What does this mean? John seems to be saying that the cross brings, not a judgement of demons carrying you away to the furnace, but – well compare

  • John 12:47 “If people hear my message and do not obey it, I will not judge them. I came, not to judge the world, but to save it.”
  • John 12:48 Those who reject me and do not accept my message have one who will judge them. The words I have spoken will be their judge on the last day!
  • And John 9:39 Jesus said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind.”

There is judgement for those who fail to see in the crucified Lord the Saviour – Messiah, Suffering Servant, Son of God. That the judgement is a missed opportunity, a continuing in darkness, makes it no less terrible. It does not make Jesus a punitive figure, the main actor in a “Sting” operation to catch the unwary. He remains the sign of God’s love, the costly opening of the door to life. But to refuse the life he offers is to take a dark and terrible way, and represents a most terrible judgement, equal, and greater, to the terrors he endured for us.

The Gospel is a thriller. Its climax comes at the Cross. At one and the same time, the Cross brings freedom, and judgement to those who will not take it.

Anger

Is God allowed to be Angry?  [I wonder if there is an age difference here; I guess older people might say “yes”, younger “why should he?”]

Certainly when Jesus clears the temple (John 2:13-22), it is energetic, and I would see it as an act of anger – not temper, or selfish tantrum, or violence even, but anger.

There is a proper use of anger. I think it exists, not essentially as a flaw in human makeup, but as a motivation for good. If this is wrong, and you care about that, do something! Do the work to put it right, make an effort . . Of course, anger is often selfish, because it is lazy, or reacts to being shown up, or loses patience. (James 1:20 says “Human anger does not achieve God’s righteous purpose.” But it does not say anger is always wrong).

At any rate, Jesus is not “losing it”; in fact, he is claiming it. We are told the disciples remembered:
Psalm 69:9 “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” – though perhaps there is also
Malachi 3:1-3 ” the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  But who can endure the day of his coming . . . he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”.

His claim is not recognised, they ask “What right have you . .?” What would we say? Perhaps:

  • the right of Creator, to control, expect obedience
  • the right of the Redeemer, God who brought Israel out of slavery
  • the right of the Saviour, the Son of God, bringing salvation

He chooses to prophesy his death and resurrection – hopeful, for this is a sign of his love and our redemtion, not of destructive anger.

So, is God allowed to be Angry? Yes, of course he is. Not only is there nobody to control him, he has rights of ownership by creation, and good reason to think that wrong has been done. We are reminded not to call for justice – for strict justice would see each of us called to account, and in very deep trouble.

But ask the question another way: Is God an Angry God?  Look again at Jesus. He can be moved to anger. He has destructive power – remember the Fig tree he cursed and it withered (Mark 11:13-28), or the herd of pigs that drowned (Mark 5:11-13)? But he doesn’t go round condemning people, causing pain, striking down – quite the opposite. He offers forgiveness, brings relief, and raises people up.

God is allowed to be Angry, he has reason to be Angry, – and he is like Jesus. For that, we should be enormously grateful and relieved – but not complacent and taking advantage.

I suggest that Jesus anger in the Temple was real, directed at people who not only failed to accept the love and mercy of God, but were preventing others understanding and receiving it. We are God’s temple – not our building, but the Church which is people. It is meant to receive God’s love and share it, to learn the ways of holiness and faithful discipleship, so that others may see what it means in practice.

If we are nothing more that a club, doing what its members enjoy, gossiping and squabbling – are we not every bit as guilty as the money changers and animal sellers of preventing access to God? It’s a disturbing thought that the Jesus who gives so much in love, might see us as his enemies.

Tolerance and Discrimination

Strange how public morality goes; you can apparently choose your faith, lifestyle and sexuality freely, but you must be tolerant.  In much the same way, you can belong to any group or subculture, but must not discriminate.  The rightness of tolerance and the wrongness of discrimination are seldom argued, just demanded.  At the same time, the popular press make the practical limits of toleration clear – rich fraudsters, terrorists and paedophiles are beyond the pale.  And we all know how to discriminate between a good workman and a “cowboy”, or a real friend and a gossip.

So, will you be shocked if you look in the Bible for these words?  Tolerance is not found in traditional translations (only, of God, in Romans 2:4 Good News Bible), discrimination not at all.  Why?  I suggest that, while there are some similar ideas, the concepts are not quite right for Christians.  Why not?  This weeks gospel parable (Matthew 13:24-43, leaving out vv31-35) may help.

The story of the wheat and weeds is about tolerance and discrimination – of a sort.  Wheat was, and is, an important food.  The weeds in this story are not a nuisance or something that spoils the picture, but darnel, a plant that looks very similar to wheat, but is host to a dangerous, poisonous fungus.  Jesus is suggesting that in human life, and that includes Church congregations, good and bad people are mixed.  We should not try to sort them out, because of damaging the wheat, because we can’t reliably tell the difference, (and because people, unlike plants, can repent.)  That’s not to say “anything goes”, in Church, or in society!  We need to help people sort themselves out – but we shall never gather a perfect group.  There will always be those in process – and those who resist God, but pretend.  There is a place, if not for tolerance, at least for patience and love, and for letting God do the final sorting out.  (We lack the qualification!).

At the same time, there is talk of a division at harvest time.  The harvesters will be under orders how to discriminate into just two categories.  No discrimination?  Well, you can’t tell wheat from darnel until the ear appears just before harvest (wheat turns golden brown and bends over, darnel seed darkens and stays upright), so no premature judgements.  But if “no discrimination” means “nobody can tell me I’m doing wrong” that doesn’t include God!

The idea of being tolerant and not discriminating is one of those half-Christian confusions which can obscure the faith of Jesus.  We don’t want to be intolerant and discriminatory – nothing Christian in that!  Letting him tell the story, and listening carefully, should save us getting it wrong.

 

Trinity -?

If you use your computer bible to search, you will find the word “Trinity” absent from the New Testament. So why do we call this first Sunday after Pentecost “Trinity Sunday”?  Because Christians asked questions about God, and found answers which are still important from scripture.

It began with questions about Jesus. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) – Jesus taught with authority; he did miracles: not only healing, but controlling the rough sea. John says much about the Father and the Son – “All that my Father has is mine;” John 16:15. Paul calls Christ “the visible likeness of the invisible God” Col 1:15, and several of his letters begin “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ [together, like that] give you grace and peace.” 1Cor 1:3

Then the Holy Spirit, who came to Jesus at his baptism, and to the disciples at Pentecost, is recognised. The word Trinity may be absent, but the trio appear as in Mt 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”

Why does it matter? It might seem a remote and theoretical discussion – but isn’t! God is not a lonely old man creating the universe as a hobby, nor is he just Jesus the man.  God is a relationship!  Have you ever thought about that? A relationship beyond our understanding, with sympathy and communication!

Relationships are a popular concern: Teenagers, parents of children, children about parents, we all wonder about community, and the threat “they” pose – whoever they are.  God is a relationship. Christians must learn to relate, like God. The world will watch to see if we can cope with one another, and doubt claims to bring forgiveness is we are not even speaking to one another.  I am glad the gospel, which shows Jesus relating to all sorts of people, also tells me that failure in the disciples was forgiveable, as long as they kept with him and kept trying.

“God is love”. (1John 4:8,16). We quote the example of Jesus, both his behaviour and his sacrifice in accepting death by crucifixion, but love is what God is, as well as does. Jesus mission is an overflowing of a quality always in the Trinity – or do I mean among the Trinity?  So “Trinity” is shorthand from after New Testament times for a biblical picture of God as a relationship, important for our dealing with people and especially other Christians.

The Son is not the same as the Spirit, and neither is the same as the Father. Is this dry theory? No.  Different and equal, not in competition, working perfectly together, accepting themselves and one another, reaching out together in love and service – but who am I taking about?  God, yes.  The Church – ideally, as it shows the God it trusts.  Every Christian individual, despite our fragmented structure?

Just as we are tempted to think we understand God (that has to be a laugh), we think we have it right, that our tradition is valuable – (which is true).  We face a temptation: we have it all right, our tradition is enough.  Wrong.  God, unity in diversity, makes us think about being different together.  God, love without competition, makes us think of using different gifts in the service of all.

I wonder if I have persuaded you?  Those who followed Jesus of Nazareth came to know God, and recognised relationship in God.  So Christians, even if not good at relating, must be interested and learning – about love, unity, communication.  As the early Churches worshipped and thought, they recognised in God diversity and unity. We need to take that model of unity seriously; not all being the same, but having a shared life and goal.  I can’t fill in the details, I can suggest that if we get closer to God, it should become clearer and easier.

I must end with words from 2 Corinthians (13:13)  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you – us – all.”