Tag Archives: love

Not good news?

Paul, preacher of a wonderful gospel, is left with an agonising problem. Romans 9 opens with pain – we read Romans 9:1-5). A Jew (more observant than most – look at 2 Corinthians 11 etc) and one-time persecutor of Christians, he has been chosen as the apostle to the gentiles. His career has met with success (by grace), and a large number of churches look to him as founder. Corinth, in Galatia, Philippi, and others.

The problem? He knows, only too well, that the faith of these non-Jews, “outsiders”, has been won against the opposition of some Jews, who would have stopped them if they could. He knows that he is seen as a traitor, and there are numbers of people who would gladly kill him as a religious duty. He knows that Judaism doesn’t want to know about Jesus; there are exceptions, thank God, but the majority won’t listen.

In one sense it’s not a problem. The Christian church has made the decision – Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, – gentiles who become Christian believers do not have to become Jews, only to keep the Christian faith and avoid some things particularly offensive to Jews. History will show that the offspring will overtake the parent, spreading further and becoming far larger. But for Paul, there remains the pain of seeing people he knows, and others he understands so well from his former life, refusing to accept what God has done and is doing.

Are we past the issue? Many of us – perhaps all of us? – know the difficulty of friends and close family, about whose faith we have no confidence. We can’t always be sure: faith is not about words, but attitudes (and I suspect the faith of a depressive or someone with little confidence is less obvious than that of the opposite personality type – but even then it needs action, reality).

How do you cope with the fact that parents or children may live, by choice, outside Christian faith and hope? I hope you pray for them – for it is a serious matter. To live without faith is to live in danger of the judgement of God, to live without the assurance of heaven. And so we pray, and take what opportunities we can to encourage faith, to explain, to take them to places where they might hear the gospel in ways that would strike a chord. We listen, to hear what they think and feel, to check for ways in, for books or films or experiences that might help.

We may be seen as traitors, “letting the side down”. We may even find religious people trying to prevent people coming to living faith. You know the sort of phrase that begins “We don’t do that here” . . We will certainly find people who will lie and cheat, to prevent the message about Jesus being taken seriously (by themselves or others). But in the end, we have to wait for God. Knowing that we don’t understand more than a tiny part of his purposes. Knowing that, while he can work in amazing ways to turn people right around, he so values their free response that he will not force, nor let us do so. No nagging, no blackmail. We have to use the methods of Christ, and offer love, knowing it may be refused.

Paul’s concern for his fellow Jews shows his human side. How will we be seen for our concern for non-Christian friends?

All Win

Half the world is lonely. We can go to the other side of it for a holiday, but a good many people have moved away, and so old communities are full of newcomers and families are not now so close. You can take your qualifications and get a job anywhere, and people do – so the chances of knowing people well diminish, and of growing old with the same people become less likely.

If half the world is lonely, the other half is cynically looking after number one, because nobody else is going to bother. Perhaps that’s too bleak a picture, – its not one I’m going to leave you with – but for many today it’s probably a fair representation of their outlook.

How could it be any different? Some will look for a fairy story romanticism, others hark back to the good old days, others pretend not to notice. None of those works very well. There’s a better way. It’s a way which is realistic about the present and the future. Everybody wants “Somebody on my side” – that’s part of the offer. Not somebody against everyone else, but somebody with a real concern, and understanding, and the ability to change things.

Everybody wants to be understood, – and that is part of the offer.

Everybody wants to be respected, and – well that does rather depend on what you do; let’s stick with being understood.

You may have recognised that the answer comes from Romans 8 (and specifically Romans 8:26-39, which we read for Sunday 26 July in the Revised Common Lectionary). Paul knows all about the problems! He has written about the reality of evil, and of the failure of a set of rules, however good, to solve the problem. Now he is talking about God’s solution – a way of life that involves faith, and grace.

It is not an instant cure. Paul speaks of how we don’t even know how to pray about the problems – perhaps that is a reference to praying in tongues, when the person praying doesn’t know what he is asking. But he is confident that with God’s help, nothing can stand against us. And he is confident in having God’s help.

That’s the crunch. How can we know the God’s help isn’t kept for someone else? For someone more deserving, someone nicer, someone more able . . ?

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:31b, 32

That’s the answer! Jesus, and Jesus’ life, is given for us all – for each one, without exception. That is how we know we’re not alone. That is how we know there is someone on our side. That is the truth of love conquers all.

And so we have confidence in winning – a complete victory assured. And so we can – should – must – live in a way that is impossible for other people. We really do live in a different world to most of the people around us. We need to understand that, to make sure that we are confident and secure in God’s love for us.

Then, as that changes us, we need to tell other people. That’s why we Churches with activities aimed at those outside. Your Church is not there to provide you with your preferred spirituality. It exists to tell people how God is with us, and it expects everyone who hears that message to be active in passing it on.

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!

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.