Speaking strong words gently

I was about to post my talk from last Sunday today… but the thing about blogging is that you can, and should, respond to immediate things. So this morning the meeting I was at didn’t start on time, because we prayed. Not hugely surprising for Christians to pray at the start of a meeting, you might say, fair point, but we prayed for Manchester, the city where I used to live, and for all those affected by the attack there last night in which 22 people died. We also prayed for the places we haven’t heard about in the news today, for the unnamed and unknown. We prayed for the injured, the mourning, the scared, the security and medical personnel, and yes, we prayed for those who would attack children and young people. I’m not asking you to be impressed, I’m just saying we did something slightly different, because we needed to.

So, if its ok with you, just stop reading here for a few seconds, and pray (if you like) or think of (if you prefer to call it that), those affected by terror attacks at the moment. And if you’d like to, then plan to do something different as a result of your thoughts and prayers- whether its going to Manchester to help practically, or to be friendly to the next random call-centre person who phones you from an 0161 number in case they’ve been affected, or to make sure you don’t act in fear or hatred to someone who’s ethnically different from you…

(here’s the bit where you stop)

Thanks. You can carry on now, if you want to

And the other thing that struck me was that we carry on doing the same things as normal… we don’t give up… so here’s my sermon from last Sunday as normal…based on Acts chapter 17 when Paul visits Athens.

Image result for ancient athens

Paul is at the Areopagus- summoned there by the citizens to present his case… I have wondered whether he was being given the opportunity to speak- a visiting speaker with interesting ideas, or the chance to defend himself- a stranger with some concerning  views- was this a pre-trial hearing or a preview of what he’d teach if given permission? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Paul has explored the city, having visited Phillipi, Thessalonica and Berea, and has begun to debate with Jews, God-fearing Greeks and anyone in the marketplace who would listen… and so he’s been brought to the Areopagus- the meeting place, not quite such an important place as a few hundred years before when Athens was chief among the Greek cities, but still…

As we look at Paul’s message here, we can learn as much about how to speak of God from it as we can learn about God- and for us, this probably something we need to look at- the chances are, if you’ve been coming along to church for a while, you know some things about God- from our prayers, the creed, our Bible readings, our hymns… you know God is the righteous and holy judge, who forgives although he could condemn; you know God is the creator and sustainer of all things, who loves and takes joy in his creation, you know that God has given humanity a role within creation, and that Jesus has given Christians a role within humanity… though you may well say or think you know very little, if you sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down your thoughts on what is God like, you’d be surprised how much you’d put down. Paul’s message is very simple- there is a God who created the universe. He knows you. He sent Jesus to die for you.

But are we able to share that with others? I’m not asking for all the evangelists to stand up and wave, but rather, are we, all of us, able to share what we know and believe with others?

Many Christians might feel that they don’t know what to say, or that its not their place, or that it’s not appropriate.

Lets start with that last one- there are times when it isn’t appropriate, and there are times when it is. When someone asks you, as Paul was asked, what you believe about God, and how you’ve come to believe that, then they deserve an answer.

Secondly- ‘it’s not my place’- if not yours, then whose? If Paul had said, wait here while I sail back to Jerusalem and fetch Peter, that would have taken many months. He was the man on the spot, the one who was asked… We’re not all Paul- we don’t take off on missionary trips around the Mediterranean (though now I think about it like that…)- we don’t have his gifting etc. But lets remember that Paul was not only clueless about Jesus, he was for his early life totally wrong. When he discovered the truth he immediately began to tell others… Very often in life we are the person in the right place, at the right time, having the conversation, and no one else could be there. Yes, there are times when we can reasonably say ‘I think you should talk to…’ or ‘I think you’d be helped by coming on an Alpha/Start course’…

Lastly, ‘I don’t know what to say’. Here’s the bullseye. Lets have a look at this passage from Acts. First of all, before Paul even speaks, we read ‘I walked around, I saw…’  He observed and got to understand something of where he was- if you know someone, you’ll know how to talk to them, and when to, and also you’ll have listened to them. When Paul finally does speak, he gives an Old Testament type preach- God as creator, humanity as offspring of God- he’s making a connection with Greek ideas but also challenging their practices of worship at the same time…He doesn’t really mention Jesus until the end… its not that Paul doesn’t think Jesus is important- just read his epistles if you doubt that, but that he realises how far his listeners need to journey before they can hear him speak about Jesus. So Paul listens and understands. He has spoken with a few people, but here he has been asked to speak, and so he does. And when he speaks, he starts where his listeners are- with things they understand- the unknown god and their poets, and relates them to his understanding of God as revealed in his people’s writings… You know the people around you better than I do, you’re already in friendships with them- that’s why you’re the best people to share the gospel with them.

Sometimes when we talk with others about God and the Christian faith, they may fire off a cheap shot, or make a joke about something, and we can be fearful… we aren’t good at arguing our point, we don’t remember clever things. But we are, each of us, experts in one thing- ourselves. Our own lives and experiences. Often folks will tell you about the God they don’t believe in… and sometimes you’ll agree with them- I wouldn’t believe in a God like that… but can I tell about the God I do believe in, and how my life has been? When Paul speaks, elsewhere in Acts, to Jews and tells them of his experience on the road to Damascus, there is no logical argument to be made against him- its just a case of believing him or not. When you or I speak of our own story, our testimony about our faith, it is our experience, our response to God, that speaks. Often its not even the words themselves, but the spirit in which we say them, that speaks most strongly into people’s lives.

Most often, we’ll be having a conversation with someone, rather than making the sort of presentation that Paul is, but what Paul finds is that at the end of his speech people have varying responses- you may have read the following verse ‘after he said this some of them sneered, but some of them asked to hear more’… When we share our faith with others, they may not respond as we’d like them to, but they may….

And its that ‘maybe’ that needs to grow in our hearts- we need to be like that boy, desperately fearing rejection, but who plucks up courage to shyly ask a girl if she’d like to go for a walk. Like that artist who eventually puts a painting into an exhibition, or the singer who finally shares a song. It may not work out how we hope, but if we’re always too afraid of what might happen, then we’ll never find out if it will.

But as for you, I’ve got my eye on you…

The sort of words that fill anyone with dread- a class full of children being told what to do, a team being given the final peptalk, the manager speaking to the line supervisors etc… Generally we don’t want anyone to have their eye on us, do we? We prefer to remain slightly anonymous, just below the radar… but great things aren’t accomplished by staying anonymous, by keeping our heads below the parapet, by staying in the pack. Sometimes we have to risk sticking our neck out, being seen- and yes, being noticed.

How does this fit with the idea of being humble, that virtue which is praised so much in the Christian life and which is made a symbol of mean-heartedness in Dicken’s David Copperfield by the wretched Uriah Heep? There’s being humble, and there’s being humble. Being humble when the alternative is selling yourself, blowing your own trumpet and being all lahdidah is generally a really wise idea- especially if you don’t have much to blow about! But is it wise, appropriate and, well, humble to say you’re nothing when all around you know you’re something else- to avoid being noticed when your friends, family and neighbours can see something in you? Or is that just plain silly, and maybe even lazy?

We’ve been looking over the last few weeks at Paul’s second letter to Timothy- known more often as 2 Timothy in the Bible. If you’d like to hear the audio version of this talk its here. I’m afraid some of the other talks haven’t made it onto the blog or the website yet…

So don’t hide your light, keep on persevering, or as St Paul puts it-

‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of’…

What has Timothy learned, and how has he become convinced? Remember the summary of Paul’s gospel we heard last week- ‘Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David’ That is the headline of Paul’s gospel, and Timothy has become convinced of- through the people around him- their testimony, their teaching, their encouragement, and also the Scriptures- at that time that would have consisted of the Hebrew Scriptures- the Law and the prophets, and the emerging Gospels (Mark’s and Luke’s may both have been written in the years prior to 2 Timothy)… we have this great verse in the middle of our reading- this is what Scripture is for- teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness- so that Timothy, and we, may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Now, both that opening sentence and this later verse remind us that in the Christian faith there is progression and purpose…

Progression- growth… continue… Timothy at one point came to faith- he reached a place where he called himself a Christian- he grew in faith and was encouraged by those around him- he travelled with Paul on missionary journeys, from his home town in modern Turkey to Jerusalem, to Greece and then became pastor of the church in Ephesus… and Timothy was not a man of great personal strength or obvious leadership gifts, but God used him because of his faith, faith which grew along the way.  Paul says how Timothy has known the Scriptures from infancy- and we can read that both spiritually and literally- Timothy, as we heard a few weeks ago, is a child of a Christian mother and a Christian grandmother, both of whom converted from Judaism- he’s possibly the first 3rd generation Christian in the world, so he would have heard the Hebrew Scriptures- our Old Testament, as a child. He’d have also come to understand what they meant afresh, in the light of who Jesus is, in the infancy of his own faith- that dawning of light as he came to understand for himself, as he was convinced of the truth of the things he’d heard about this Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee who was descended from the royal family of David and about whom so many things were being said- was he a blasphemer, in league with the devil, a rebel, a great teacher and healer- or as those who claimed to have seen him alive after his execution, or like Paul to have had visions of him, was he the Messiah, the Son of God… and if so what should that mean in Timothy’s life… if that claim was true, it was of ultimate importance, if it was not, then Jesus was of no importance… Our faith, just like Timothy’s is not a matter of a tick box, or an event, but an ongoing journey with a destination, a relationship with a purpose…

Purpose- as individual, church and the people of God. Paul reminds Timothy that his life now has a purpose-  the Word of God has the purpose of preparing God’s people for every good work, the purpose of God’s people is to do those things… but before we find ourselves spiralling into a whirl of good intentioned busyness, remember what was said last week- the importance of being able to listen to the Holy Spirit, the importance of having time to respond to the Holy Spirit- just as Jesus healed the lepers on his way to Jerusalem, and Paul on his missionary journeys followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit and responded to circumstances (think about it- he never planned to go to Lystra where he met Timothy, but only ended up there because of a plot to kill him in the town of Iconium…). So our purpose is to firstly learn to listen to the Holy Spirit- by spending time with God’s word and in prayer, by drawing close through worship, and in listening to discerning where and how God is calling us to serve him- and it may be that God is calling us to serve him in the very places where we already are- by being salt and light, vehicles for his grace, in the workplace where we’ve worked for years, in the streets where we have always lived, among our family and friends. It may also be that God is calling us to serve him in a new way- if our work takes us to the High Street, we may feel called to respond to those who cannot afford to go shopping there, if our work takes us away on trips, we may feel called to pray for and share God’s love with fellow travellers, or… we are each called to work out that purpose as individuals. We’re also called to work it out as members of a group- our church… with our support of finance and time we enable our church to work out our vision and to fulfil our purpose in this community- of proclaiming God’s love in ourselves and this community. And that requires us, to a degree, to make a decision about whether we want to have a greater or lesser input into that process of discernment for our church- the more we invest in that, the greater our immediate sense of ‘yup, this is good’, the more we delegate that to others the more willing we have to be to say ‘just tell me what to do’ and put our shoulder to the wheel… and there is a sliding scale of that- our church is part of the mission community here in town, is part of the diocese with our 3-fold strategy of making disciples, growing in prayer and serving the people of Devon, and is in turn part of the Anglican church and communion with the commitments that implies and ultimately is part of God’s church in the whole world… and the purpose of that church? To go and make disciples of all nations… starting wherever we find ourselves.

As this passage draws to a close, Paul reiterates his encouragement to Timothy- at the start of the letter he told him not to be ashamed to testify, here he writes ‘preach the word of God, always be ready’- there’ll be times when people want to hear, and times when they don’t. Times when the door is open, and times when folk just don’t want to hear…

At this time we’re in a strange place- on one hand the world seems a fearful, selfish place where people contend for their rights and there is violence or fear of violence all around, and on the other hand there seems to be a spiritual awakening going on- people around us are looking for something to ground themselves in- community, something to commit to, folk are open to spiritual conversations- I believe we’re entering into a season where, for all sorts of reasons, we’re able to, with consideration and respect, share what we believe- If we don’t people will just cherrypick the ideas that they like from the Christian faith and any other philosophy they come across, because no one has told them any better- the door is open, but many people just don’t know the basics of the Christian faith. So for ourselves, and for them, its so important that we do continue to progress- remaining fresh and with a faith that is alive, and that we know we have a purpose- not just running around in circles…

A brief call… from Thomas the tank engine

Yesterday morning at our all-ages service we were thinking about how Jesus used stories really powerfully to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds, and we used the themes and imagery of the Thomas stories (originally written by a vicar for his children) to help us with our thinking… led by the fat controller after he’d been to weightwatchers we thought about what rules and regulations we need to avoid ‘chaos and confusion’ and to help us all to be ‘really useful engines’…

Earlier in the morning at our 8am service I’d been reflecting on the passage at the start of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church where he writes about his own background- he gives his biography in order to establish, to a degree, his credentials. The only problem is that he basically says ‘no one recommended me- not the apostles, not the other Christians… they just knew me as the man who was trying to destroy the churches…’ but then goes on to say (and I paraphrase brutally) that he was called by God and given the gospel by God… so we were thinking about the call that God gave to Paul, and the call that God makes to each of us… not to be apostles to south Turkey and Syria, though that’s possible and very much needed, but to be us- God calls each of us to be ourselves, in the places where we are, with the gifts and network of friends that we have…  And the fact of our faith- that some of us believe in God while others don’t, is the first evidence of our response to that call…

So the questions we are faced by are whether we recognise that we’re called (or to use the language of our all ages service, that we’re one of the Engines), and if we recognise that in principle, then what does it mean in practice… how will we be Useful?

Another of God’s ridiculous ideas…

This week we’ve continued to look at how the first generation church grew and spread- in Acts 16 Paul and Silas have arrived in Europe, and we’ve seen the first church founded in Northern Macedonia… and now here we are for the next instalment…

Today’s reading follows on from last week- It’s a great passage with so much in it that I struggled to decide what to speak on, so we’re just going to work through the passage and see where we get to…starting at verse 16 in chapter 16 of the book of Acts.

At the heart of it, this passage is about faith and power… who do we have faith in, and where does the power lie?

We have Paul and Silas, men of faith who, as we heard last week, were used to listening to God and following his guidance, and people in Philippi are beginning to put their faith in God too, and in doing so are trusting in God’s power to save them and bring transformation to their lives. And we have the slave girl– she has no power of her own, and yet people come to her, pay money to hear what she says. Her masters and the spirit control her, and make her work for their purposes. She is a reminder of those things that exist- spiritual forces that are not of God such as mediums, psychic healings, fortune tellers- those things that can have power over people- that can have power over us if we let them, and material things in the world, in our own lives that can, without us realising it, limit our lives. It might be things from our past- unforgiveness, rejection, anger, issues with violence, relationships etc. It might be that we have dabbled in occult spiritual things at some point… and as with the slave girl, these things can follow us around… and they will not stop until we choose to declare God’s power in our lives, as Paul does. Later in the summer we’re having a series on living the Christian life, based on the book ‘Stand’ by Karl Martin- as in the last few years we’ve used a book to support our teaching series, and it addresses these things that are stopping us from flourishing as Christians…

But what of her words- these men are servants of the most high– they are correct but only to a point- in John 15 Jesus says ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’, and in John 1 ‘children of God’- not servants but so much more. Whether this spirit is deliberately lying- in the same way that we see Satan challenging Jesus by distorting what God has said and the serpent challenging Eve by questioning God’s will for humanity, or just cannot grasp the relationship that these men have to God… friends of Christ, sons of God?? How can this be, and yet it can- Whatever power this spirit has to discern who Paul and Silas are, God’s power is so much greater– firstly in that they are not servants, but have been made friends and brothers of Christ, with all the privileges and responsibilities that brings, and secondly in that Paul’s words- simple, plain, matter of fact- would that our prayers were like that, and as effective! Paul has faith, and his words have power- Lord’s Prayer– archbishop’s call to pray for our nation, using the Lord’s prayer- this week- please pray specifically for our nation to be changed and our community to be transformed… for individuals you know- and if you find yourself unsure of how to pray for those things, use the words of the Lord’s Prayer to get you started, write down on a piece of paper- maybe your notice sheet from today the names of 5 people who you want to know God more fully in their lives- people you care about enough to pray for each day.

What happens next- these things happen, the fear of what might happen must not stop us from living out our Christian lives to the fullest extent- this is our only stab at this, so why hold back? I’ve heard of several occasions over the years and have experienced it myself here and elsewhere, that if a church is trying to draw closer to God and to serve him in the community and prayerfully working to bring about transformation through the gospel- then there will be problems, and difficulties.  Fear of what might happen if we do what we know in our hearts is right… that’s a rubbish reason to keep our faith toned down.  If we are not sure about what we believe, then take the opportunities that are around to you sort that out- the bible study groups that already exist and are being started here… Start course… invite a friend, come with them if you like. If we have other things in our lives that demand our attention and time- that’s ok for a time… in that none of us really like our wheelie bins, but we know that we need them, and that we have to put them out, put them back and occasionally clean them… but to accept that things will always keep us from growing and flourishing as Christians, that’s like saying that its reasonable to leave your wheelie bin in blocking your front door and climbing over it every day… it just isn’t… so don’t live that way.

But the road isn’t guaranteed to be an easy one- If we believe the good bits in Scripture, we have to believe the tough bits too- Paul and Silas were beaten, flogged, mocked and imprisoned… and they took it- they didn’t say or do anything, they sat in their chains. Now Paul knows about Peter’s escape, but he also knew about James’ death… Ultimately they trusted God more than they feared man, they knew that their lives were his, that living or dying wouldn’t change that.

And then- the earthquake, the decision not to run, and the words of the jailer- both ‘how will I get out of trouble’ and ‘save me!’ The decision to remain in their cells was made because Paul and Silas wanted the glory to go to God- earthquakes happen- not infrequently in Greece, and if they’d escaped that night the magistrate and jailer and the city would have had them marked as escaped criminals and hunted them down. But by remaining they are able to speak God’s word into the lives of the jailer and his family– This is probably not how Paul had hoped or expected to see things develop… the continuation of the unexpected- Lydia last week- as someone pointed out to me a dealer in cloth was not just a shop assistant, purple cloth even less so, but still not necessarily your strategic choice… here, God’s word is shared with another unlikely candidate, but once again its someone who is ready to respond- the jailer has seen how Paul and Silas were at peace… I was reading just yesterday ‘you can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your response to your circumstances’… their peace and their manner spoke as much as their words…

As we reach the end of this passage we see two interesting and important things- there’s been an earthquake that has brought down the doors, but Paul and Silas are still beaten and bruised- God has power, but leaves work for us, He doesn’t do all things… God is glorified through the earthquake, but people are still able to make a difference and help one another- Paul’s words bring the man to a place where he wants to respond, and the first thing he does is to help Paul and Silas… and then is baptised- once again, we see that there doesn’t need to be a long time left… if you are drawn towards God, then why hold back? What must I do? Believe in the Lord Jesus- that he is the son of God who can forgive our sins- not just an academic, intellectual belief, but a belief that includes trust and faith- believe in him in the same way that you believe in a chair that you lean back in… commit yourself.

Ultimately- God is glorified and the kingdom grows… faith, and power. May it be the same in our time, in our community, in the lives of those we know, and in our own lives.


Refugee faith, part II

So once again the Christian faith is crossing cultures- this time its not being shared with ex-pats living in Palestine, but with proper foreigners on properly foreign soil- Paul has travelled hundreds of miles on foot, reached the edge of the Mediterranean and crossed over in a flimsy boat to mainland Europe (sounding familiar yet?), and the result is that the Christian faith arrives on these shores- Acts chapter 16 describes the events, but here’s what I said last Sunday, or at least some of my notes:

Paul and Silas are on the second of Paul’s major missionary trips- they’ve revisited the churches founded during Paul’s first trip, and then travelled further north and west into what is now Turkey… at various points they’ve found their way barred- and have continued where they were able to… its important to note that they were already moving when God guided them- they weren’t just stationary, expecting God to do everything. Their journey had had twists and turns- some very unexpected… things not going to plan… normally when planning a journey we might ask advice from friends who’ve been to the same places, look in a guide book, check a few websites…

The dream- not quite sure what made the man recognisably Macedonian… maybe he was wearing the national costume, but they responded… They recognised that it was God directing them- they knew his voice well.

Paul and Silas were by this stage used to following God, to stopping, pausing, waiting, going, and also used to discerning whether people around them were speaking God’s will or not- Go away, stay, be quiet…

So they went to Philippi and there they met Lydia, among others. They didn’t meet them in a synagogue- there may not have been one, and Lydia wouldn’t have been there anyway, as she was not a Jew. They didn’t go to the town square and shout the good news about Jesus in the middle of town…They went to the river, to a place of prayer- and spoke with some who were interested. After all the guidances of the Holy Spirit this is where Paul and Silas are led- to a group of people sitting around by a river… Lydia was ‘a worshipper of God’- the same as Cornelius, whom Peter visited in Caesarea. She was interested, and she was open.

She responded, and all of a sudden there were European Christians… She and her household were baptised- no hanging around… when God is at work, why wait?

If you were planning the spread of the Gospel into Europe, I wonder how you would have done it- who would you pick as your first convert on the European mainland? A woman in business- not a powerful person with influence and connections in all the right places… why?

  • God values women BUT ALSO that this good news was for everyone and to show that God values those others do not, the poor, the diseased, the children, the women, the outcasts, the cultural minorities were and are important to God.
  • And we can really KNOW this, because God made such a surprising choice to our logical minds choosing Lydia

So… What is God doing today? Where and how is God at work in this community? Where is he calling us to go and be his people?

Note to self and apology to anyone who was there- I managed to get myself confused when I spoke about Paul and Barnabas- Paul wanted to revisit some of the churches they’d founded, and Barnabas wanted to revisit others- they both wanted to encourage the existing Christians and found new faith communities.

But going back to the image of refugees and travellers- Paul brought the Christian faith to Europe. He wasn’t a refugee. He was a travelling preacher and migrant worker. He was also a citizen of Rome and so had access to the open borders policy of the Empire… Oh, it just gets more and more complicated… So am I saying that open borders to all is a good idea? Not sure. Am I saying ‘In’ to the EU? Well yes, but thats a personal thing rather than something I get from my faith. I guess I’m just making the point that its really easy to mix up the wood and the trees, to look back at something and say it was important while making sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes… they all have a part to play

Yesterday we were thinking about two of my favourite passages of the Bible- the first comes from Luke’s gospel, and is where Jesus stands up and speaks about how some words of Isaiah (good news for the poor, feeding the hungry, freedom for the oppressed, light in darkness and the time of God’s favour) are about to come true today… love that passage (its Luke 4.14-21 if you want to look)… he then spends the next two years doing that, and during that time he also teaches, encourages and enables his disciples to do the same.

The second passage we looked at came from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Turkish church in Ephesus- now a ruined city just inland from Kusadasi, across the water from Samos and nearby to several refugee camps. Paul was notorious for rejecting the claims of Jesus and his followers and trying to destroy the early church- today is one of those odd days in the church calendar where its not a saints day but a day when we remember Paul’s conversion- his encounter on the road with Jesus, in a way that was spiritual rather than material (no one else saw it) but real rather than conceptual (it totally changed the rest of his life)- the road to Damascus experience that any others are referring to.

We used this prayer to help us think about how we are each able to be part of the things that Jesus was talking about:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.                                                             (St Teresa of Avila)

When God calls us he expects us to respond by more than simply worship or prayer… we show our love by our action, but not busyness…

Paul expected the same, but also that each person would find their own place- the Body of Christ from Romans, the different ministries in Ephesians… but the list at the start of Ephesians 4 is a general calling- to be humble and gentle, to be patient, to work to keep unity… for there is one hope- that which brings healing, light, freedom etc… some basic things for all people who follow Jesus, who’re Christians…

And then in verses 11-12 the ministries Paul lists weren’t exclusively for the church in Ephesus or the early church, nor are they exclusively for us- in every place, at every time… all are essential to the life of the church… we’re not all called to be professionals, to have the ‘vocational calling’ to them, but all can, as grace has been given to us, be one or more of these in the places where we are… Know what we are (we were thinking about how feet aren’t much good for carrying things etc) and play our part, each of us…

these five ministries can be expanded upon massively, but just to give a pointer:

Apostles- those who are sent to new places, whether those be across the Roman Empire or up to the allotment…

Prophets- those who see with the eyes of God, and call us to come closer to God… they challenge the world and the church to live up to the ideals, the manifesto of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed.

Evangelists- those who want to see people come to a saving knowledge of God’s love, which may seem obvious to some but is scary stuff to others- its ok to recognise that some of us are called and gifted in that

Pastors- those who care for the sick, the lonely, the orphans, widows, the poor and the homeless…

Teachers- those who encourage and educate those who are new to faith…

If you look at the order of them, we need them in that order- to go to a place where the Gospel is needed, to highlight the gap between life as it is seen and as it might be under God, to provide opportunity for a response to that- for people to come to God, to care for people’s needs as they do that and then to teach them how to live as followers of Christ themselves… when we find ourselves stuck and aren’t preparing, or being prepared for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up, we need to go back up the list- what aren’t we doing… where is the blockage… until we’re able once again to- be good news to the poor, bring light to the dark places, heal the sick, free the oppressed and proclaim God’s love for the world.

St Paul and the 21st Century- the car of God

All this summer we’ve been learning about the Kingdom of God, in various passages from Mark and John’s Gospels. We’ve recently been looking a what Jesus meant when he describes himself as ‘the bread of life’ and instructs his followers to eat his body… This week, alongside some more about that, we had a second reading from St Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus- the passage in chapter 6 that talks about the armour of God and compares it to the spiritual characteristics that Christians must have in their lives if they’re to continue to grow in faith and remain in relationship with Christ- if they’re to carry on being in the Kingdom of God.

One question that I had as I prepared was whether the analogy to armour is just that- an analogy, or whether its a more exact parallel- whether when Paul talks about the helmet of salvation he’s talking about something that is really essential, life-saving, pretty obvious ‘like’ a helmet, or if he means that it is a helmet… I came down on the side of the analogy as you’ll see, but I’d be interested to know if I’m alone here.

Anyway, here’s the script from yesterday, and as usual, the link to the audio file here

When we hear the passage from Ephesians chapter 6, which we just heard, we often think of the first time we saw a vicar in toy armour, or when we saw a youth worker making armour out of kitchen utensils, all to try and illustrate this passage for us… but we won’t be thinking about those things today… well, maybe just a little bit.

Paul wrote to the people of Ephesus that they needed to put on the full armour of God if they were going to stand their ground in tough times, and though we don’t wear real armour today, the spiritual things that Paul was talking about are just as important… but what might be some modern things that Paul would mention if he was writing today? I was tempted to use all sorts of climbing kit at this point, but Paul talks about something that is familiar to people- so something that many people in our society understand is a car… so lets think about what the car of God would be like… and the things you’d need if you were driving in a tough situation…

belt of truth… something that protects you… seatbelt? Without it you are vulnerable. Truth helps to hold us in place in the midst of skids and slides… sometimes its uncomfortable…

Breastplate of righteousness… things in front of you bounce off it… windscreen? Protects you as you’re moving forwards, often without you noticing it- things bounce or slide off it. When a windscreen is doing its job you can see where you’re going, and you are visible- its not just a thing to hide behind but you can still move.

Feet fitted with the readiness of the Gospel- grip and steering, stopping and starting- surely the tyres?

Shield of faith… something you can’t see, but you trust is there, something that will save you in need- air bags and crumple zones? A shield was something you could move, cars now have airbags on all sides… wherever they’re needed… faith is only visible when its in action.

Helmet of salvation… drivers licence- you have to know it, to pass your test… a map or satnav maybe? Tells you where you are going, helps you to get there… a basic but an essential

Sword of the Spirit… which is the word of God… fuel?

As Christians how do we get those things into our lives?

Knowing the word of God in our lives- 2 of them are about this, so its important- not just reading the Bible, but reading it as a way to get to know Jesus and to understand God. A car can’t get moving if it doesn’t have tyres or fuel… the others are all needed too. People sometimes talk about putting on the armour of God every morning, but as well as that, how do we strengthen those things? Through our times together here- we pray, we hear God’s word, we worship- we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection- we are reminded, encouraged and invited to know more about the relationship we are each discovering with God…

In our other reading from John’s Gospel, we heard Jesus talking about the bread of God, that it’s a symbol of accepting his promise of eternal life… but if you miss a week, are allergic to bread, don’t like raisins, feel funny coming to the front, can’t walk and we forget to come to you- none of those prevent you from receiving the promise of salvation and eternal life in Christ- that is the relationship between you and God that is restored because of Jesus death and resurrection. The bread and wine that we use to celebrate Holy Communion are symbols of that- just as they point towards the events described in the Bible- the last supper, the meals that Jesus shared with others during his life, the manna in the desert, the Passover meal (and the annual repetition of that). Jesus says- you remain in me, and I remain in you- that’s a permanent thing… its not dependant on a top up or a renewal… but we do it every week here at one of our services… because just like putting armour on, or like putting the seatbelt on in the car… we don’t do these things for the times when we don’t need them, but for the unexpected times when we do…

Nobody wants to run out of petrol, get a flat tyre, crash their car etc… and so we refuel in plenty of time, always have a spare in the back, use seatbelts and have airbags that we hope are never used. We take a driving test and then forget half of what we learnt, and when was the last time any of us seriously looked at our windscreen to check for scratches or chips? When we come here on any given Sunday morning we may arrive in a rush, tired from the week, worried about the week ahead, barely able to concentrate or take much in… or we may be in that place of peace and joy, filled with expectation of encountering God until its ruined by the service leader, the welcomer at the door, the music, the grumpy children and the noisy older folk… but somehow, God meets with us on both those occasions. We may not notice it, we may not appreciate it at the time, but God meets with us, his Spirit fills us, we are reminded of what Christ did for us and of the truths of our faith… we are strengthened for the time that lies ahead, and healed from the week that has passed- a trip to the armourer, a weekly servicing for the car…

When Jesus spoke about who he was and what he meant to do, many who heard him said ‘this is a hard teaching!’- why? Because they didn’t want to hear about a man who could give them eternal life, who would plant complicated ideas in their heads about God being with them in all places, who claimed that he really was sent by the Father and lived only to do the will of the Father- promising eternal life. They didn’t want this because some of them wanted a hero to lead an army, a teacher to inspire them to fight against the Romans, while the others wanted a man of peace to help them keep their heads down and wait for the next empire to come along, while telling them that they were doing just fine with God… and Jesus didn’t fit the bill.

He confused them with his wonderful miracles and fascinating stories, his sidestepping the expectations folks had and the connections he made with the wrong sort of people… and Jesus knew this. And many of those who’d followed him for a time stopped, and went away. Because he didn’t fit their bill. But some stayed- they didn’t necessarily understand everything, and they weren’t yet fully formed, but they, like us, and like all those others who’ve worshipped here over the years and are in churches elsewhere today, were willing to say ‘yes’… and so we echo the words of Peter- ‘to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God’

As we worship today, in every part of our service, that is essentially what we are doing… our prayers are in his name because Jesus is the Holy One of God. When we celebrate Holy Communion it’s the death and resurrection of the Christ that we celebrate, when we lift our voices in worship, it’s the Son of God who’s name we praise. So let us live in the light of that- ready to endure the challenges set before us, to prevail for the sake of the one who saves us- whether we are clad in the armour of God or driving in the car of God, but living as the people of God.

In terms of some of the other writing that I’m planning to develop, I’ve just been asked to put together some teaching on Mission, which will need to get done first…

Generous living- Jesus was generous and we’re encouraged to be generous too.

This weekend I was involved in a children’s/family service which had very little by way of a structured script, and certainly no ‘talk’ as such. We were looking at a passage in chapter 5 of Mark’s Gospel where a woman is healed and a child is restored to life. The big idea we were picking up was that Jesus values people regardless of their age or background, their state of health or social exclusion, and that he doesn’t hold back. At the same time, in the main church, my friend David was preaching on the same passage, and you can hear his talk on the website here (its the first time we’ve entered into the world of online availability of the sermons, so please let me have any feedback gently!).

After the family time, I was preaching with the other church I lead, and I was really unsure of whether to preach the same message, or to look at this passage in chapter 8 of Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, which talks pretty clearly about finance and giving.  I’m English, so along with talking about physical intimacy, emotions and toilets, discussing money is pretty much a no-go zone. However as I was preparing and thinking and praying about what I should say, a bunch of different things came up which convinced me- a group of us had been saying that we should have some teaching on finances and faith at some point, but weren’t wanting to crowbar it into passages where it didn’t fit; i’d had several magazines floating around my office which all managed to surface on the tops of piles with cover blurb like ‘how rich is too rich?’ and ‘everything you have is God’s’;  and on Sunday morning my daily Bible reading (completely separated from the passages we look at together) was all about giving generously to God and not holding back on the tithe offering…so then I’d basically prayed and said to God that i’d do a family talk on the Gospel if kids/families were there, but if not, I’d talk about giving… and there were no kids there… so this is the notes worked from…

Giving… a grace. ‘a gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have’.

  • Being generous- encouragement, not a command. Paul encourages the Corinthian church to excel in generosity as they do in other things. He shares with them how others have given- no numbers mentioned, but 2 principles- as much as they were able, and they gave to the Lord first… if goes beyond numbers into whole life- I don’t tithe, I give everything I have to God, and at least 1/10 of the money towards the work of the church and the kingdom of God… budgets and tithes and systems are great in that they give a framework, but they can impose legality on something that is meant to be a response to God’s love…
  • Being generous regquires- first of all realising that everything belongs to God (that’s a standard part of Christian stewardship); secondly that God has given us all we have (standard Christian theology); thirdly that all we have are assets for the kingdom of God. Then our actions that follow come from those understandings.
  • Do we want to be generous- I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to be thought of as generous. And I’ve rarely met people who would acknowledge that they weren’t generous… which is odd because those same people would also say they would like to be more generous hearted… that is- they’d like to be comfortable giving more away… if I’m comfortable with a certain level of giving or generosity, then to give more or be more generous takes effort- it takes reprioritising, and it takes sacrifice.

Some areas where I struggle to be generous- food, particular bits of kit…

  • What does being generous do to us? Practicing makes us more relaxed about money, and more trusting in God… it helps us prioritise and grow in faith. Being generous with anything prevents that thing from having control of our life- if you’ve ever seen a top musician, actor or sportsperson- someone who has huge pressures on them, take time to help or encourage a younger person, that’s what? Being generous with something is good for us. When we are sacrificial and generous, we are following Jesus… its something that we can do that actually transforms our hearts.
  • What does it do/show to others? It shows our actions match our words- our money is where our mouth is. It shows how much we value our faith rather than our wallet’s contents. It shows those outside the church how much our God means to us, and it might show that in contrast to how little other things mean to us. It releases others too- if I see others being generous, it helps me too. Of course there’s the risk that if I give generously someone will think that they don’t have to give at all… but that is about them and God- I’m talking about my desire to grow in faith, to become more like Jesus, to live as a Christian.
  • When we appreciate what we have been given, it becomes easier to be generous with it- the experiment in the foodmall ‘can I have some food? Do you have any spare food?’ Sharing with the poor- the poor sharing with us.

Generosity as one form of the proof of our love for each other that comes from a love of God… loving God helps us to be generous to others.

All a bit rough round the edges, but i’d been hoping that i wouldn’t have to preach it!!

Holding on to hope

As well as the daily readings by Simon Guillebaud that I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading through Pauls first letter to the church in Thessalonica this week. There’s lots in there about hope- he uses the word ‘encourage’ about 10 times (I haven’t counted, its a guesstimate) in quite a short letter, and also lots of ‘giving thanks for…’- Paul is both encouraged by them, and also wants to encourage them. But what for?

The reading I had this morning, which linked to Psalm 121 (I lift my eyes up to the hills, where does my hope come from? My hope comes from you Lord…) helped me to focus my thoughts on what we’re about, what Paul was saying to the church in northern Macedonia- Hope. Keep hoping. Don’t give up hoping. Look higher than your current difficulties and hope.

This week I’ve been organising a number of funerals, been hearing about friends with cancer or who’s children are ill, I’ve barely looked at the news but I guess there are still thousands suffering and dying from Ebola, millions of refugees and many living with the fear of job loss or relational instability… In the face of those things hope can seem a little insubstantial, not really solid enough. But it is also indestructible and everpresent- it is always with us if we just look for it. Even when we see no hope in this life, the Bible (and throughout the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians- just go look if you don’t believe me) speaks of hope for a future- beyond this life there is something more, something better. Its up to us whether we choose to accept this as being true, but actually our belief in it doesn’t make it true- it either is, or isn’t… its whether we want to put our hope in it or not.

Remembering the past and hoping for the future

The last few days I’ve spoken at several remembrance services and school assemblies, in varying formats, with over 1000 people in our small bit of the world.  This is what I said yesterday morning in church, or at least what I’d planned to say until someone reminded me that this weekend also marked 25 yrs since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I ended up going off on one about that for a while, but at least part of the following text was used:

When we, or anybody, tries to remember something, its essential that we do two things- we have to find its context (where it comes from) and we have to find its connection (where it touches us)- if not, it won’t make sense. This morning we’re thinking about Remembrance, and we’re using the Bible passage we just heard to help us think about the Christian response- what a faith in God helps us to say in this situation.

Remembrance is, of course, not just about remembering things- its specifically about remembering those who have fought, been wounded, suffered and died in conflicts and wars across the world. In particular this year we’re thinking of those who fought and died in WWI.

6 million British Soldiers fought in WWI which is a huge number and one we can’t really get our heads around- of those soldiers 1% suffered from shell shock, what we’d now call severe PTS, 3% became POW’s, 28% were wounded and 13% died- only half came home in one piece, but their lives were changed forever by what they had experienced.

We remember them not to honour or glorify war- what is often described as ‘the final and most desparate of political means’- when all else fails, but to honour their sacrifice, and to honour the hope that they fought for. Although wars and conflicts have continued around the world since the end of WWI- there has never been a single year of global peace, and its questionable whether there has been a single day, and yet they fought for the hope of peace and freedom. In the face of suffering and violence, hatred and fear, men and women still stand to protect ideals of peace and freedom, to protect the weak.

Why? Because of hope. Hope that one day we will bring those ideas to completion- the kind of hope that keeps you going at the beginning of a long week at work, or at the start of a massive project…

The Bible passage we heard, part of a letter written by St Paul to the church he’d founded in the city of Thessalonica- he’d only been able to stay there for 3weeks before being driven out of the city by people who disagreed with him… so it was written to a group of people in a tough place, somewhere it was really difficult to be a Christian. I’ve never lived in a country where you might lose your job or face violence just for saying that you go to church, but I remember when I was at school some people who just liked to find any excuse used to give me grief when I became a Christian in yr8- that was probably as close as I’ve ever come to the sort of situation these Christians were in… and what encouraged me was knowing as a Christian I could trust Jesus even in some tricky times… I had hope. And so Paul’s talking about how one day, even though things seem really difficult right now, it will be ok- the promise that Jesus will one day return to bring peace and justice, the promise that when we die we will have new life with God- those promises are bigger than the threats that they faced. They are bigger than any fears we might have. Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica to give them hope. ‘Encourage one another with these words’… today those words can give us encouragement- the world is a mess, and there seems to be violence growing everywhere when you look at the news… there seems to be nothing I can do, and so I might despair… but- ultimately it will be ok- I can have hope even in the darkest of times.  This was the hope that many soldiers found in the trenches of WWI and have found during conflicts and wars since then- Strong men who saw their friends suffer and witnessed terrible things came to realise that the hope, the words of the Bible, were a source of guidance, of comfort and strength.

As we read these words and others like them in the Bible, it can be a real challenge for us- these images of angels and trumpets and the dead rising and meeting Jesus in the clouds… is this accurate? I don’t know for certain, and neither did Paul. I do know that more than one writer in the Bible uses this same sort of language, but I also know that when we try to describe spiritual experiences or pictures that we feel come from God, it can be like tying down fog… the best we can do is give a loose idea.  But I also know, and all of us who’ve experienced anything of the presence, the power, the love of God know this too, that its all beyond our understanding… this is no harder to understand than the idea that prayer can somehow allow me to relate to God. Everything about our faith is beyond our normal understanding- its something that gradually makes sense as we go along… but those concluding words we can hold on to- ‘we will be with the Lord forever’… so let us encourage one another.

I guess at the heart of what I’m saying to folks is that what we remember- the thing that lies behind the poppies and the parades, is more important than them. But more importantly than that, more important than the practice of remembering the sacrifice and determination of others, is to let it affect how we behave now and in the future- if their sacrifice impels me to work for peace, to grow freedom and to encourage others to stand against evil, then it has been worthwhile.