Tag Archives: sin

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.

Bug in the system?

Paul has set out for the Roman Church he hopes to visit the need for Christians to live the new life won for them by Jesus, and not to think that forgiveness allows them to indulge every disordered desire. In chapter 7, he begins to ask how this works out – a basic question for Christians in every age and culture.

The Jewish Christians recognise that they are now released from the Law – meaning the commands of the Old Testament (like the 10 commandments of Exodus 20). They know very well that it is one thing to know what is right and good, but another to do it. This is a problem we share. We can say that it would be wonderful if society worked according to our plan, or even if we lived in this way – but we only have to try losing weight, or getting up earlier, or being less grumpy, to discover the difficulty. As we read Romans 7:15-25, we have to admit that wanting to do something, and actually doing it consistently, are two things separated by a problem in ourselves.

Paul identifies the problem as sin. Even when we want to be good, it doesn’t always work out like that. What can we do? Of course, one solution is to change the target – “Be reasonable”, “It doesn’t matter” . . But often it does matter, and the failures cause problems. Education, discipline, harsher punishments have all been suggested, tried, – and none have provided a full solution.

The rescue that Paul has experienced is provided by Jesus. There is a fault in human behaviour (not in the design; it was caused by the refusal to recognise God and do things the way God planned). Humans do not have the ability to do what they want and believe to be right consistently and constantly – so the power of God must be brought to bear.

We shall talk more about life in the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 – next week’s reading. There is one more thing before we leave chapter 7. Is this experience of human weakness experienced by all humans, or do Christians escape?

Certainly all humans contain that flaw that prevents the good they decide on becoming the unfailing behaviour they deliver. Some are more disciplined, some less tempted, but perfection is not an option. Christians have access to the vital missing ingredient – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in several ways, including providing direction (what should be done), motivation (why bother?), and the power or energy to get on with it. So does that mean that Christians don’t have the problem? Not quite. With the help of the Holy Spirit they can achieve much more, but never in this life become perfect. There is still the problem, now alongside the solution, but lurking to trip us up. Thank God that’s not the end of the story!

Christian Behaviour

It is easy to get confused about what Christian Behaviour should be. There are lots of “things we ought / ought not to do”, but they don’t always agree, and anyway, who says? Of course the Old Testament had commandments which gave a picture of what God was like, and liked. But they could mislead – some thought that just having the commandments made them better than other people, and in any case, they all made mistakes and failed to live perfectly.

Paul taught Christians (Jews or Gentiles) that they would get to heaven because their sin was forgiven by the grace of God, depending on the death of Jesus, and through the faith of the believer. But he then had to face the question (we are reading Romans 6:1-11), “So, why behave? If sins are forgiven, why worry?” Paul’s answer might be paraphrased “No way: Live for yourself, or live for Christ – but you can’t do both!”

I don’t have to tell you about living for yourself – we’ve all done it! It’s selfish, which means that we don’t enjoy the pleasures as much as we might, both because we may have hurt others to get them, and because we are looking over one shoulder to see who may be trying to take them away. It makes a world where you’re on your own, everyone against everyone else and pity help the weak. And if you live for yourself there’s always a problem with guilt and failure. You’re never going to reach God’s standards, and you probably won’t keep up your own, either.

So, what’s the alternative – to live for Christ. That doesn’t make us perfect; you may have noticed that Christians are still sinners. But it is a totally different motivation. As forgiven sinners, we work together with others who share this loyalty. They’re an odd lot, and sometimes it is rubbing along with them that rubs off some of our rough edges. But if we share a Master, we also have a real unity. This is a family which, though it can argue, has a very strong reason for living together.

There’s another benefit. The more we get into this service of Christ, the more like him we become. It’s one of the things the Holy Spirit does to us and with us; you may not notice, but other people will. What are we saying? A lot of people still make the mistake of thinking that Christian Behaviour is “being good” – getting a good score on keeping the commandments. That is a mistake.

Christian behaviour is all about serving Jesus, living for him. (Rather like the line in today’s gospel, Matthew 10:32,33 “If anyone declares publicly that he belongs to me, I will do the same for him before my Father in heaven. But if anyone rejects me publicly, I will reject him before my Father in heaven.” The question is “Who do you belong to?” and there is the same sharp division). Those commandments are still useful – they tell us things what God thinks is important, and warn us of dangers.

If you want to know how you are doing, don’t say “I wonder if 7/10 is a pass mark for keeping the commandments” but ask “How much of today did I live for Jesus, and how much did I really live to get my own way?”

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Only two possibilities?

Christians are sometimes accused of trying to make a simple – even a simplistic – choice out of life’s endless moral dilemmas. It is complained that preachers unfairly make the spectrum of goodness and evil into a false two way split. But scripture does this too. There are many different metaphors which have in common a refusal to allow the hearer to sit on the fence. Think for example of Jesus parable about the two men, one building his house on sand, and one on rock. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy several times urges a choice of direction: blessing and curse 11:26f, compare 30:15. Psalm 1 pictures two trees, one by the waterside, not a forest or even a copse. In today’s reading of Romans 8:14-17, Paul offers some explanation.

Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, named for its 50 day interval after Passover (Easter), we tend to focus on the dramatic story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, told in Acts 2. But for us who live a long time after those events, how does the Spirit make a difference?

Paul has spoken in Romans 7:14-23 of the way good intentions are not enough to overcome sin, experienced as selfishness, desire, addiction and many other things. In Romans 8 he explains that it is the Holy Spirit that breaks the monopoly of human sin. It is not that the Christian becomes perfect, or even loses the many temptations to fall back into a self-centred, desire directed, life. But the Christian can be “led by the Spirit of God” – directed by a greater force, though always responsible, never coerced. This is a life that pleases God, and is seen as good and constructive by those around. This is the way to become the person God intended, filling the place in the community (both the Christian congregation and the wider local community) that is properly theirs.

It is a strange balance. We do not lose control of our lives, yet what is good in them is given, not achieved. The choice has to be made each day, and even more often, yet going the way of God’s Spirit we have confidence in our direction, even when it is not obvious. We still sin, and need repentance and forgiveness, but the stranglehold of a sin-dominated life is broken, and wonderful opportunities are glimpsed.

Christians do believe in a division into two. Only God is able to give a final, accurate judgement, but scripture again and again speaks of a two way choice, not a range of assessments of good and bad.

This is reinforced by the role of the Holy Spirit in making us God’s adopted children and heirs. Again, the division – those who receive the inheritance, and those who do not. Adoption is a gift, yet a gift in which we may have confidence, and for which we may always be grateful.

The story of the birth of the church that Pentecost is striking, and still of great importance. The Holy Spirit, working in Christian believers, leads them to the life God intends, and gives a new position as adopted children.

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

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.

The Value of Antiques!

Antiques are popular! Perhaps some like them for good workmanship, others for their style. At any rate, shops, books, fairs and television programmes abound.

In the New Testament, if you were to look for antiques, you would immediately turn to John the Baptist. (John 1:6-8 and 19-28)  Perhaps he was himself an antique, to judge by what other gospels say about his clothing and style – the “classic” Elijah-type prophet.

There hadn’t been a prophet for several hundred years, then John arrives, insisting on bringing up things from the past.  The WILDERNESS: the place where a group of slaves became a nation, and a nation of God’s people, with identity, Law, and leaders. John lives in the wilderness, teaches in the wilderness, about JORDAN the original way in to the Promised Land; his baptism seems to be saying “go back to the beginning and do it right!” It’s not just individuals who have sinned, the whole society needs to repent and make a new start.

So it comes to a crisis. John has preached with some success, he has a group of disciples of his own, and then – they send a delegation. John is the son of a priest, so they send Priests and Levites. Who are you? Explain yourself! No, he’s not the Messiah, not Elijah (as Malachi 4:5 expected to return before the Day of the Lord) nor the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15. His answers get shorter; he’s not interested in being classified. But they go on, they have to have an answer. Eventually, John quotes Isaiah 40:3 (though the Septuagint, Greek, version rather than the Hebrew), for now the voice is in the wilderness, shouting about preparing a Way for God.

John may be the antique dealer of the New Testament, going back to the old style, bringing back a fashion for wilderness, and ways in by Jordan. But he’s got his eye firmly on the situation of Judah, and the future of God’s people. He knows something is happening, and he is desperate to direct people, not to analysing his style, but to preparing for the one who will follow him.

Antiques are junk, unless they adorn modern living. John deals in religious antiques, and perhaps we ought to pay attention to his sales talk, – and buy before the price is our of our range.

Forgive – again, and again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obey?

(A dialogue sketch on 1 Peter 3:13-22, a reading this Sunday, is available here )

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 and again “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;” John 14:21 – both included in this week’s reading of John 14:15-21.  It would seem that obedience is commanded, and indeed that the effective presence of the Holy spirit in a believer is in some way conditional on such obedience. In a past world, that would have seemed pretty straightforward.

But our culture has moved away from obedience, and is unclear whether to see it as a virtue. Perhaps for some it came from the Nuremberg war-crime trials, which established that obedience to superior orders is no defence – we must only do what we judge to be right, even if it means rejecting the orders of others. For others, the civil rights and protest movements will have reduced respect for authority, and psychological studies like the 1961 Milgram experiment (which showed normal volunteers capable of inflicting, as they thought, painful and even fatal electric shocks on people when encouraged to do so by an authority figure) will have strengthened objections.

So, does obedience still have a place in faith? I think so, though I want to take these objections seriously. What Jesus says is not “Do as I tell you”. In fact, what he tells us is not mainly simple instructions like “Pray for 10 minutes twice a day”, but much more complex things like “Love God and love your neighbour” (eg Mark 12:30-31). So these verses do not say “obey” but “keep my commandments” – keep, look after, be mindful of.

This isn’t the mindless obedience of the bayonet charge, doing because you’re told to. Quite the opposite, it is an invitation to value and practise things you know to be good.  This is clearer when we see that the condition is “If you love me, .” If we are familiar with the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and enthusiastic enough about them, are attracted to them strongly enough, find them to have greater significance and importance than others – then we are going to value them and put them into practise.

So, is there a place for obedience in faith? Yes. Don’t I just mean we do what we think is right? No.  We look at the life, works and teaching of Jesus, and find that important beyond other things. We value and apply his teaching, and in doing that we learn that we never do so perfectly, because of our own weakness, sin, and failure. We also discover – perhaps in other people – that sin affects our judgement. I can be rational, but rational about my own weaknesses – that is much harder.

So, as I think about what is right and what I should do, I apply the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible to my situation and culture – AND in those things I find difficult or tempting, I add extra weight to what they say, distrusting (but not discarding) my thoughts when they disagree. In other words, I find it necessary to obey more over things which tempt me, or which have caused me to fail in the past.