Tag Archives: unity

So What?

If you have been following readings from Ephesians, you may remember Paul has first covered “theory”. He has talked about the blessings received through Christ, the dangers of that time (not only as Paul was a prisoner), and the unity of Jew and Gentile in a shared faith. So we come to Ephesians 4:1-16 (or 1-24), and Paul comes to the consequences of faith.

The first thing is unity, mutual dependence – according to one commentator “the fundamental principle of corporate life”. The focus of this unity is not common ritual or practice, but one Lord. The body looks to him, the Spirit comes from Him, the faith (and baptism) are in Him.There is great danger when unity is focused elsewhere – in a building, in a denomination, in habit. These destroy unity, and provide no base for humility, gentleness, patience and love. On the other hand, loyalty and commitment to God in Christ lead on to these. This is an important part of what Paul is saying. “All life should be lived as an expression of and response to God’s calling”

Then (vv7-16) comes a surprise. Rather than the victor demanding tribute, Christ gives gifts, to equip the Church and facilitate the ministry of all its people. The pattern is clearly unity, not in uniformity but in diversity – a variety of gifts used to promote mature faith which makes a resilient body of believers not easily mislead. It is interesting that the most “gifted” (for all are gifted) are themselves to be seen as gifts, not an authority figures, and are themselves part of the body. No role here for superheroes, just the call for every one to use what gifts they have, and encourage others to do so.

If Christian people are to be drawn together by loyalty to one Lord, and enriched by gifts deployed for the good of all, then in 4:17-24, (missed in our Sunday sequence – we start at v25 next week) as in 4:1 they are to live a new life. The selfish, morally blind life is to be abandoned in favour of a new way. The knowledge of God is important morally as well as intellectually, and Christian life is lived for God’s purpose, not simply our own pleasure or advantage. So v23 you are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”.

There is no shortage here of specific, and demanding, instructions (you may want to take away and think about those that are new, or that seem to affect you directly) – but everything is linked back to faith, and to what Christians have been given. Nothing here is “because I say so” or “we have always done it this way and so must you”. Paul’s appeal is that Christians should live “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” 4.1 Those who are most aware of how much they have been given, how greatly they need rescue from themselves and their world, are most likely to be ready to hear and respond to the call to a new life. I hope that includes us.

Oh heavens!

Have you ever thought that you might end up in heaven – and discover that you really didn’t like it there? (CS Lewis developed the idea in his book “The Great Divorce”). It’s not that I want to worry you, or cause nightmares, but it will certainly be very different!

The idea came to me as I thought about Ephesians 2:11-22. The question of Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds doesn’t seem very important to us now. The Ephesians – like most of us – came to faith from various positions, but few were of Jewish family. Paul is quite definite about there now being just one family and household of faith, which might seem uncontroversial.

Until you think about what it will be like to experience family life with all sorts of other Christians. How will you take to South American Pentecostals, or Asian members of ancient churches, or first nation people, or . . In heaven we shall be brought to understand that the God who has brought us together is greater and more precious than any of our distinctive traditions, or the families we come from, the lives we have lead . .

So, it may be all right in heaven, but perhaps we should start preparing now? After all, if we can think about what really matters and lasts for eternity, and what is going to be left behind, would it not smooth the transition? Or do we find that we are too attached to some temporary things, and want to say that they are really much more important than – well, than God might think?

Giving

How do you feel about about talking about money? Some don’t like it, others assume its fundraising and they’ll be asked to contribute. Yet Christians often hesitate to mention giving – as I am doing now. (And not only am I not asking for money at the moment, I make a point of seldom doing so.)

Money is personal, private. Yet so are most of the issues that faith deals with. – and many of them we need to talk about because they are controversial, Christians taking a view, even a stand, that is not generally agreed. More than that: we may dislike a world in which everything has a price, but the fact remains that Christians will be judged by whether their spending matches their faith talk.

So what can we learn from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15? Paul is reminding this congregation about a collection for poor Christians in Judea which they had started, but seems to have got “stuck”. He says some important things:

v8,9 the generosity of Jesus in becoming poor for love.

v13,14 a question of equality – perhaps reversing in future.

Giving is important, but it is important that giving should be an act of love (not like shutting up demanding children, or escaping the charity collector who makes you feel guilty). We give, because Jesus teaches us generosity, because we have enough to be able to give thanks to God by offering back some of his generosity to us.

There’s more, though. v12 talks about giving proportionally. I have often found people with the least to be generous. Problems are found with those who have good incomes, who try to give the minimum. Giving proportionally means a fixed part of your income – so more if / when you have more income, less if you earn less. You might like to make the calculation. How much do you (or your household) earn? If you add up your regular giving, what proportion is that of your income? The Old Testament expected 10%, my church organisation suggests 5% to church, allowing for other giving (and perhaps the social welfare aspects of taxation) – but it gets less than 3%, and suffers as a result.

This project of Paul’s was very important to the Church. It brought together Gentile and Jew, helping create a unity. It still does – and we should think about giving to Christian causes and charities. Nobody else, outside faith, can be expected to support them, yet they bring together brothers and sisters in Christ.

I haven’t asked you for money – I’m not going to. But please take seriously the Christian faith, which deals with many very personal areas of life, and has instructions (yes, instructions) about your view and use of money. You need to give some away, regularly, in proportion to your income. Doing so will help you to recognise the generosity of Jesus, and help you be part of his family.

Bleak?

In Wales, we are half way through 2 weeks of Covid lockdown; England are just about to start 4 weeks of staying at home; other places also struggle. It is hard in many ways, and for once we share in difficult times.

Christians have to be realistic, and this is not an easy situation – but neither is it the full story. November 1st is often kept as All Saints day. Having survived Halloween, we turn to celebrate and give thanks for the less famous of God’s people. Revelation 7:9-17 is the fuller of the New Testament passages set for the day, and it has an encouraging picture to offer. Here is a picture of God’s kingdom, with much to celebrate and much to look forward to:

  • here is a crowd of people united. It’s not that they are alike: they are of many backgrounds, races, languages; but you might say they are singing from the same hymnsheet. They have a common purpose which makes their differences insignificant. Their focus is God, and together, happily, they worship
  • God is at the centre. Not because he insists it be so, nor because he is some sort of successful dictator. He is recognised for his love and faithfulness. This crowd know how he has healed, forgiven, and brought them together in a wonderful way which has given freedom, not taken it away.
  • And then there is the comfort and reassurance of the closing verses

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Revelation 7:15b-17

This is God’s kingdom, which we want to celebrate and live in. We start now, knowing that we haven’t got it all sorted, but that turning our backs on what is wrong and following Jesus is the way in, even when its not easy. Some of that crowd of saints had a hard time – so did Jesus – but the kingdom is worth it. Those promises are kept. That hope is realistic. That destination will not be in lockdown. Join the celebration, enjoy the view, keep on until arrival.

It’s no joke!

What is both totally absurd, and also very common? Sadly it is not a joke, and the answer is Christian division and disunity. Paul faces it as he writes to the church in Corinth (we read 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, following on from last week). He responds to reports he has received that the congregation is dividing into groups or cliques, following Paul, Apollos, Cephas or Christ.

We can only speculate: Paul had founded a church for Jews and Gentiles together. We might guess that the Cephas group (Cephas is the same person as Peter, the apostle) were concerned to keep the Jewish traditions. It may be that the Apollos people liked the smooth educated style and more polished rhetoric of Apollos, and the Christ clique longed for the good old days. . .

How it happened is not the point. Paul insists that it is quite wrong. The message he had preached was about Jesus. His intention was to share his faith – in Jesus. He had deliberately avoided setting up a personality cult, based on his gifts and appeal. He reinforces this with the point about Baptism. Baptism was into Christ, it mattered, but who performed the ceremony was not important.

Sadly, as I suggested, the failures we all share make it very easy for Christian unity to be damaged. We meet “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – but are too quick to add “as decent Anglicans”, or fans of this or that tradition, or denomination. Three things in particular are dangerous.

  • One is the tradition you like – Catholic ceremonial, Evangelical preaching, Charismatic enthusiasm, Anglican moderation . . We all have likes and dislikes, but they must not replace our loyalty to Christ – or they deny our faith!
  • Similarly, we will take to one leader more easily than another: their syle of speech, personality, or simply the fact that they were there for you at a difficult time. That’s very human, but must never endanger your 1st loyalty – to Christ, and other Christians.
  • And of course there is the question of buildings. We know in Britain we have too many – but the answers are not easy! What can be said is that when a church closes, and some choose not to worship anywhere else, the sceptics may rightly ask whether it was the worship of Christ that ended, or some other social gathering.

You might think that is the end of the question. Christian division is unfaithful, you either follow Jesus and are ready to join with any and all others who do so, or your faith is in question. But there are complications. One is the need to worship in different ways. Young and loud; older and more reflective . .

Another, that while Paul will not allow the church to become cliquey, he also needs to give a lead, and have his teaching authority recognised. Any Christian must have a loyalty to Christ, a commitment to follow as a disciple. But we are also called to fellowship – to be part of a group where we learn, and both give and receive support. That means being being loyal and supportive of a leader/s. (It may sometimes be right to leave and join another group, but if you don’t think grumbling and lack of support a sin – read Exodus about those who didn’t like Moses, what God thought, and what happened to them!)

So let’s remember the importance of being together as we follow the Way of Christ. Let’s practice loving the difficult, and quelling any gossip or grumbling with something positive. It’s not easy, but Christian living was never promised to be!

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.”

Glory!

In John 17:1-11, Jesus begins a prayer that will continue through the chapter.  Some find it odd that he, Son of God, should pray – but we understand the three persons of the Trinity to be in close, indeed perfect, communication.

He knows the time of glory – the time of sacrifice – has come, and prays that his disciples may receive eternal life.  Too often we have limited that to some after death experience, but it is meant to be a new quality of life, beginning now and continuing beyond death.  We shall have to discover what it means, as the first disciples did.  It is not the effortless and trouble free existence we might imagine, but does indeed bring a new quality of love (purpose, hope, service, – we could find many words) to what may still be a difficult situation or hard slog.

Jesus is clear that his followers are those God gave him.  For us, it is a mystery how God both gives us freedom of response and yet knows who will be his people.  Yet this group have discovered that Jesus spoke God’s words, and value them accordingly.  He prays for them, rather than for humanity, that they may be protected and united.  Protection we find it easy to understand – there are many threats.  Unity takes more thought.  Why is it so important?  Perhaps it helps to look at the history of Church division, the often personal (or personality) differences which have handicapped fellowship and service.

It is good to have a tradition, to belong to a group of fellow believers.  It helps us find a starting point, a way of doing things.  But let’s resolve to be Christians first, and above all other loyalties and badges.  United with all who follow Jesus and long for his life to be fully realised in them, we shall grow in love and service beyond narrow boundaries.