Friday, 25 December 2015

Overtaken by Greater Joy: A Christmas Meditation

Zach and Liz (Zechariah and Elisabeth) were a godly couple who had never been able to conceive a family naturally. No doubt this caused them much frustration down the years. By the time we meet them in Luke 1 they are old and "passed it" and had likely given up all hope of being parents.

So when an angel appears to Zach as he offers incense at the altar and tells him he is going to be a dad, he is no doubt stunned, but there's a question worth pondering. Read the extract below and ask yourself, what was the "prayer that had been heard?"

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

As painful as the childlessness must have been and no doubt prayers had gone up for that, that wasn't the primary prayer of Zach that the angel had come to announce the answer for. It was that God was finally fulfilling his promise to the world after thousands of years to come to us as one of us.

And yet, in that answer to the prayer of the righteous, the prayer of the ages, the prayer of prayers, God also, in this case, fulfills the very natural desire of a heart for children. Zach and Liz's joy at becoming parents is overtaken by the greater joy that God is faithful to his ancient promise and will fulfill it in their lifetime. This is clear by what Zach says after John is born:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zach doesn't burst into song about the handsomeness of his son like many parents would, but about the grace of God coming. Putting it bluntly, Zach waxes much more lyrically about "Mary's son" than he does his own. Little John only gets a look in at the last bit, and he is only the warm up act!!

Whilst their personal, temporal joy is no doubt very great, it is caught up in an eternal, universal joy of what God is doing by uniting himself to us for ever.

So whatever joy (or indeed sadness) you have this Christmas, and I hope you have much deep and profound joy in being with those you love and sharing precious moments with them, there is a greater joy to be swept up into, one that goes deeper, wider, higher and longer than the deep pleasures and sorrows of this life can ever know.

The Incarnation - God becoming like us, is an invitation, for us to become like God for ever.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

A is for Acceptance: GRACE Sermon Series Notes

Twelve years ago, I went to Weightwatchers. It was the first time, as a twenty-something man, I had walked into a room where I felt like a total outsider. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to be there and get my bodyweight under control and everyone was very friendly, but all the leaflets I got, all the advice I received and all the motivational hooks, were set up for the majority woman audience. There were even a couple of awkward laughs when the meeting facilitator gave one of those "top tips" and then realized, it wouldn't work for me. I wanted what the company was offering, but the community it fostered, left me cold and awkward. If it wasn't for the fact that I was paying to get weighed and so wanted to drop the weight as fast as I could, I probably would never have gone back. It all seemed nice, but irrelevant, and I was out of place.

I'm sure Weightwatchers meetings have come a long way since the day I stepped across the threshold of that primary school hall 12 years ago. These days every trendy business or charitable cause is seeking to build an accepting and diverse community base; bending over backwards to flaunt and affirm their "accepting credentials" so that no one can accuse them of being bigoted. The church is no different and rightly so.

But whilst we can all talk in wishy-washy, inoffensive ways about acceptance, we also have to recognise that EVERY community has to have a unifying principle that puts people on the inside or outside of that community. If I turn up to Weightwatchers and want to be “in” their community, I have to at the very least pay my fee and agree with their mission that loosing excess weight and maintaining a healthy body weight is a good idea. Otherwise, why am I there? No one would think that Weightwatchers was an intolerant organisation if it kicked me out after turned up to their meeting and started slagging it off for not welcoming people who aren’t interested in living healthily or telling everyone they’re all hypocrites because they haven’t lost any weight that week.

The church is called to demonstrate the love and acceptance of Jesus, but in a cliché-driven and image-saturated culture, what does it really mean to be accepting or loving? What is the unifying principle in the church?

What binds us together is the love of God. But that love has a definition and that definition isn’t my feelings. It is the person, words and actions of Jesus Christ – the Son of God. Just as our words and actions are the evidence of the kind of love that is in our hearts, so Jesus' words and actions are the evidence of the kind of love that is in God's heart (Luke 6:45) because Jesus was and is God.

Receiving the love of God and receiving the words of God is one and the same thing. You cannot receive the love of God, separate from the words and actions of God. (John 1:17)

Jesus effortlessly moved amongst all ranks of society, meeting with the ruling elite, the common folk as well as the excluded outsiders - the lepers and the tax collectors. No one was left out in the cold. He loved them all, without distinction with his words and actions. He loved everybody and he challenged everybody both those who looked good on the outside as well as those who looked chaotic and messed up.

This love of Jesus brings hope to the down cast, but it also calls us up and out of ourselves and calls us into a much bigger reality than we ever realised was possible.

The reason he did that was because on little cross on a hillside outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago God removed EVERY barrier between us and him. EVERY BARRIER.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. 1 Peter 3:18

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

God has said that there is no barrier left. At the cross, God removed ALL the barriers that stopped God from uniting himself to the human race. Nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not our sin against him or against others nor other people's sin against us, not our shame, nor our self-loathing, not any demonic power nor our any human government, not our ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or nationality, not our weakness nor our illness, not our lifestyle choice nor the place that we live, not our education nor lack of education, not our political preferences nor our lack of it, not our body shape, not our past, our present or our future, not our ignorance nor our hypocrisy... NOT EVEN being polite, successful and middle-class.

God in Christ, throws his arms out wide to you, without qualification, he has accepted you and me with all our foibles and inconsistencies and hopes and fears. Nothing can stop him from doing good to you and for you. Will you now receive him, receive his words into your heart? The only reason anyone might possibly be rejected by God is because they continually refuse to receive him and put themselves beyond his welcome.

The problem is that even after we have been welcomed by Jesus and welcome him into our lives, are filled with his Spirit and desire to be like him, sharing what we have received from him with others, we still make a hash of it in all kinds of ways. There are many accusers both in and outside the church who are quick to remind us when we mess up.

The good news is that Jesus is not surprised or fazed by the laziness, fecklessness or even the plain nastiness of his people. If you have a bible, turn to Luke 18:35-43

Jesus has for a while now, been going around announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, teaching people, healing people, casting out demons etc. Things like that don’t happen every day and his reputation precedes him. So when a blind beggar, sitting at the side of the road going into Jericho city, hears that the man who is the long awaited Messiah of the human race is passing through, he is not going to be passive about the possibility of receiving his sight.

But an incredible thing happens. Even though everyone knows that Jesus is a healer, something in the hearts of the crowd closes up and instead of saying… “Friend, what a great day this is, let us lead you to Messiah that you might receive your sight,” they tell him to shut up! What kind of heart does that?
  • Did they have a misplaced sense of purity that let them to think that – unlike them – the blind man was unclean and unworthy to come to Jesus? (Lev. 21:16-24)
  • Did they have a misplaced sense of order – that Jesus wouldn’t like it or would be thrown by it?
  • Did they not really understand the blessing of sight? – “Sight is overrated?”
  • Were they hypnotised by the fear of missing out? A noble desire to receive from Jesus becomes a dark and twisted thing as they pushed the weak and needy out the way just in case Jesus only had a limited amount of “power” to bless them with.
Do we have the same attitude as that crowd at times?
  • Do we due to some misplaced sense of purity in our hearts, think there are people who are too unclean and unworthy to come to Jesus?
  • Do we have a misplaced sense of order – that Jesus or church life would somehow be thrown off course by welcoming others?
  • Do we misunderstand the goodness of the gospel? – “Jesus is overrated?”
  • Are we so fearful of missing out, or just so plain selfish at times that a noble desire to receive from Jesus becomes a dark and twisted thing as we push others out of the way so that we can get a blessing.
But the guy is not silenced. Peer pressure will NOT stop him from getting a blessing from the Lord of the Universe.

On the surface, it probably looked like any ordinary crowd, but Jesus, fully aware of the dark dynamic going on, intervenes because he orders to the crowd to bring the man to him.

Jesus asks him what he would like, not because he doesn’t know, but because he wants him to confess faith. The blind man addresses Jesus as LORD –he knows who he is talking to, and the LORD of all creation gladly grants him his request.
The crowd go wild with joy at this miracle.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t rip into the crowd for trying to keep the blind man away from him. He doesn’t say “You stupid, wicked, sinful, heartless people, why did you try and stop him from coming to me?” Jesus would have been within his rights to do so. But grace rarely speaks of rights, it speaks of kindness and generosity to the undeserving. He knows that we are all weak, stupid, dark and fallen creatures who need his love and his help whether we look like it on the outside or not. We need to stop pretending that we have it all sorted and receive his words, and receive his love. The only perfect person around when any group of people gather, is Jesus.

Over a thousand years previously, after the Israelites had annihilated this Jericho, Joshua pronounced a curse over it (Josh. 6:26). Hiel of Bethel did rebuild it, and suffered as a result, (1 Kings 16:24) but in the miracle of that day, Jesus announced that he was reversing the curse on the city. No wonder it was a day of celebration.

A love that is overdue and overwhelming breaths through our town. The curse is done away with at the cross, the way to God is open, and life and blessing flow to all who will receive the words of Jesus.

Jesus has done what we could never do and brought the love and acceptance of God to us. He has filled us with his Spirit so that we might be transformed and come to a place where we can share what we have received from him with everyone.

Jesus-shaped acceptance can often look like the kinds of acceptance we see in the wider culture, but it is not the same. This is how he welcomes us and this is how with his help, we can learn to accept others.
  1. Jesus is not non-judgmental, he accepts us on the basis of truth (reality) and he full of wise judgement. He knows how bad we really are, but he knows also that he has the power to make us fit for his presence. (John 8:11)
  2. Jesus isn’t bothered about superficial behaviours or micro managing people’s lifestyle choices (Luke 15:2). He is most interested in our hearts and its allegiances and so his acceptance of us goes to the very deepest level and he has no problem sitting with people in seemingly “impure” settings.
  3. Life poured out of Jesus, (John 7:37-39) so he didn’t fear pollution by association with the non-Christians of the day and he wasn’t up tight around them. Neither is he fearful that moving towards us in love will somehow taint him. When he comes into contact with us, he joyfully transformed them, not the other way round.
  4. Jesus went looking for opportunities to bless people because his acceptance was not about maintaining a status quo but about looking to see what the love of God can do in the hearts of people. (John 10:16) He sent someone to speak the love of God into our hearts, and we can have the privilege of doing the same.
  5. We are not entitled to anything from God and Jesus doesn’t just tolerate those he accepts, he welcomes them as his very own family – he can’t wait to get to know them. (John 15:15)
  6. Jesus would be justified, as God, in feeling a sense of superiority about his acceptance of others, but he doesn’t – he is naturally humble (Matt. 11:29) and happily serves and sacrifices himself for the sake of others.
  7. Jesus is patient and enduring (Mark 9:19, Hebrews 12:2) – he accepts us with all our mess because he knows the future, the glorious new world that is coming, and the power of God that will be demonstrated in that time that will translate our weak, and floored bodies into glorious eternal ones.
Some of the Deacons put Jesus shaped acceptance this way:
“Having open arms to all, just as Christ has opened his arms to us.”

“Accepting others as we have been accepted ourselves by God.”

“Awareness of times when we focus our time and energy on those ‘like us’ – proactively step out of cliques to engage with those unlike us.
I can think of no better way of ending a message like this than with communion.

God the Father welcomes as his very own Family, all those who have welcomed Jesus into their hearts as Lord. Communion is not a funeral, it’s a family meal and just like any family meal, the dynamics can be messy, some members of the family can be happy, others sad, some family members can be grumpy and nasty to each other. But each has a place at the table and just as the Father welcomes us to his table, so we come to join him, not because we have earned our place, but because by God’s incredible kindness we have been given the right to come as his children.

So come, eat, drink and celebrate God’s love and welcome and accept one another as God has welcomed and accepted us.

Questions for Reflection:
  1. When have you ever felt out of place? Why?
  2. What do you think about the statement that the love of God/Jesus and the words of God/Jesus are the same thing? How does it change your view of God's love?
  3. Do you agree with the statement that receiving all the words of Jesus is the only qualification for coming into the presence of God. How does that change your view of the Christian life?
  4. What do you think of the crowd in Luke 18? Do you ever exhibit the same tendencies?
  5. What do you think of Jesus' (non) reaction to the nastiness of the crowd? What does that tell you about him, and about us?
  6. Jesus publically (by his actions) reverses the curse laid on Jericho over a thousand years earlier, what do you think that means for the place where you live?
  7. Communion is a family meal time. How does this statement help us to understand how we should interact with each other and our Heavenly Father as we take bread and wine together.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Sermon Notes on Daniel 3

Nebuchadnezzar turned his kingdom of Babylon into the world superpower of the day gobbling up much of what is known today as the Middle East. His foreign policy was familiarly multiculturalist - to take the brightest and best of the nations he conquered, retrain them and put them into service in his empire. As a result, Babylon became the centre of the world at that time. If you wanted to see the latest technology, art and architecture, hear the best music or taste the best food, the place to go was Babylon.

The book of Daniel is (amongst other things) the story of Daniel and his friends: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were four Jewish boys taken (albeit by force) under the wing of the Babylonian empire.

Read Daniel 3.

Rulers often have a god-like status and Nebuchadnezzar, even after acknowledging the power of Daniel's God who interpreted his dream (see Daniel 2), sets up an enormous idol as a testimony to the supremacy of his reign / Babylonian power / Babylon's god(s). He clearly believes that his empire is the "meaning of history" as he issues a decree that officials from all the nations of his realm, be brought to Babylon to admire all that has been achieved, pledge allegiance to the king and ultimately bow the knee in worship of Babylon's god/idol. (Note, Daniel himself is curiously absent from this story and we are not sure why. Off on international business? Already got a "get-out-of-jail-free" card from chapter 2? Who knows?)

With such shock and awe tactics at play, our heroes Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had to have very clear wits and strong convictions about loving God and about the purpose of human history so as not to be carried along with the herd, bowing to the gold statue. Nebuchadnezzar had set up his idol for the people, but in their hearts, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (like Moses in Heb.11:24-26) looked by faith to the greater reality - to the God who would establish his eternal Son as the object of worship for all people, (Phil. 2:9-11) through a promise made to their forefather Abraham (See Gen. 22:18, see also Dan. 7:13-14 and Rev. 5:9-10).

Unsurprisingly, they are soon denounced for their treachery, by others from their own (envy-driven?) ranks and find themselves in front of the king. Nebuchadnezzar is clearly enraged by what he sees as high treason; he has spared their lives, brought them to Babylon, educated them and given them status and a salary in the greatest empire in the world. How could they be so ungrateful now and disobey the king's command? It is true that Nebuchadnezzar had given them everything - on an earthly level, but when he demands the allegiance of their souls, he commits a spiritually fatal overreach.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not ungrateful, rude, defensive or arrogant, but neither are they apologetic to the king for what they have done. They simply point out that forsaking their God to worship an inanimate lump of gold is something they can't and won't do and in so doing remind Nebuchadnezzar of his place in the order of the universe, that he like them, is only a man - he might kill their body, but he cannot take their soul (Matt.10:28). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego display utter confidence, that however limited and fallible their own perspectives, they will obey and entrust themselves to God who has shown them a better way and will deliver them from the king's hand either by a miracle or by martyrdom.

Nebuchadnezzar is so enraged by this challenge to his authority that he orders the furnace (a symbol of his unrighteous fury) to be made white hot, so hot in fact, that his own men die delivering Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to the flames. But wait, in the midst of these flames, what does this "son of the gods" (a title of Nebuchadnezzar) see? The true Son of God, coming to strengthen, comfort and deliver his servants from the unjust anger of Nebuchadnezzar.

In fact, the presence of Christ with them in the fire is so sweet, that Nebuchadnezzar has to call Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego out of the furnace. They are in no hurry to leave!!! He then gives praise to their God and promotes them immediately. But notice what Nebuchadnezzar doesn't do - he doesn't dismantle his golden statue, nor does he personally convert, he just gives Jews special status. He likes having godly people about to benefit him and his empire, but he doesn't humble himself before the Living God.

So what do we learn?
  1. Whilst this scenario may have taken Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego by surprise, it didn't take God by surprise. He loves his people and is organising history so as to test and refine their hearts. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego proved faithful, God was honoured by their faithfulness and they are raised to new heights of glory in the Babylonian empire and new heights of spiritual authority and maturity as a result of their obedience. (Matt. 25:21)
  2. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego managed to withstand the anger of the king because they loved God and knew God's purposes for human history. They saw faithfulness to God as more worthwhile than the accumulation of temporary riches (Luke 12:15). In the time of trial, could the same be said of us? (Matt. 6:21)
  3. We are to honour our families (Eph. 6:2) and those in authority over us (Rom.13:7), but there will be times in our lives when our friends / family / partners / spouses / bosses / government overstep their boundaries and expect an allegiance from us that they have no right to require. In those moments, a clear head and a pure heart that come from knowing and experiencing the goodness of God are needed to keep us from giving in to their illegitimate demands. Yes we must give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but we must also first give to God, what belongs to God - Matt. 22:21. 
  4. If people betrayed Jesus up to death, we should not be surprised if those who we thought were our friends end up forsaking us (Luke 21:16-19).
  5. Should we go through a fiery trial because we choose faithfulness to Christ over whatever else, then he promises to be with us so closely in it (1 Pet. 4:14)  that we will be content to live long in the trial and to bring good out of it (James 1:2-4). 
Finally, if we find ourselves in a place where we have been faithless, we can take heart from the testimony of Peter, who due to fear, denied knowing Jesus three times, (see Luke 22). Yet he was graciously restored by Jesus after the resurrection (see John 21). Whilst the memory of that denial was no doubt painful for Peter to the day of his death, it didn't disqualify him from the purposes of God. If by fear we have been faithless, we should not lock ourselves up in pride, but humble ourselves and seek his restoration in our lives.

Questions for reflection
  1. Is there a person or institution in your life expecting a level of allegiance from you that they have no right to? In the light Daniel 3 how would you respond to them?
  2. Do you expect a level of allegiance from someone else that you have no right to?
  3. Sometimes we can "start well" in a trial, but as time goes on we look to things other than God to get us through or get us out. Are you / Have you been in a situation like this? What do you need to do?
  4. How can you build yourself up in the knowledge and love of God (Jude 20-21) so that when these conflicts of allegiance come across your path you can not only stand your ground, but flourish in the trial?
  5. Have you been unfaithful? What do you need to do? How does Peter's story in Luke 22 and John 21 give you hope?

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sermon Notes: Who is the Holy Spirit? What does He do?

Today sees us beginning a new sermon series revisiting the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian and the gathered church. We feel that in the busy-ness of making RFC work, we have lost something of this and we want to return to and strengthen it as it is one of our founding values being part of Newfrontiers. To be clear, we want to pursue God, not the merely supernatural, for not everything that is supernatural is of God. And we want this not just for our meetings, but for our everyday lives - no dividing walls.

Here are seven foundational things we want to tell you / remind ourselves about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The list is by no means exhaustive for that would take ages.

1. The Holy Spirit is God - Genesis 1-2, 2 Corinthians 3:18, John 14:23

The Holy Spirit is not an it. The Bible introduces us to the Living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit - three distinct persons, all fully, eternally and equally God in their nature. The foundational picture that God has given us in creation to help us begin to get our heads around this is the first created human family in Genesis - a father, mother and children. Each person is distinct and unique, yet all are equally and fully human. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of the Father and the Son (John 15:26, Gal. 4:6), he eternally proceeds from them both in a similar way that you and I and our brothers and sisters all proceeded from our fathers and mothers. He is the life, love and infinite creative diversity of God who flows eternally between the Father and the Son and from the Father and the Son out into creation.

2. He loves to glorify the Father and the Son - Matthew 5:16, John 16:14

All the members of the Trinity are self-forgetful because they find their joy in the other. They aren't interested in getting attention for themselves. The Father loves to glorify the Son: "Look at Him, isn't he wonderful?!" The Son loves to honour the Father: "He is worthy of all glory!" The Father and Son have sent us the Holy Spirit to be our constant and eternal companion. Like a best man, joyfully and unobtrusively organising the logistics of the wedding day on behalf of the Bride and Groom, the Spirit longs to shine the spotlight on Jesus and His Father and help us to glorify the Son and honour the Father as we go about our lives in the world. Abraham's chief servant, Eliezer (see Gen. 15:2) exemplifies this gospel truth about the Spirit wonderfully in Genesis 24.

3. He brings new life to the dead - John 5:25, 1 Corinthians 6:11

The Bible shows us that not only are we unable to save ourselves, but moreover, that we don't want to be saved. The Holy Spirit is the one who awakens a person to the reality of their need before God, that we are guilty in our rebellion and high treason, clothing ourselves not in the glory of righteousness as image bearers of God, but in shame that comes from that rebellion and thus ironically becoming naked and held captive by the Devil. As the gospel is spoken over a person, the Holy Spirit enables us them to hear and receive the words, he cleanses us from all this guilt and shame and takes us from the captivity of the Devil and places us into the family of God.

4. He testifies to us and in us of our adoption and betrothal - Galatians 4:6, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 22:17

When we find ourselves forgetting, doubting, faltering, or indeed when we are speaking / singing out truth, it is the Holy Spirit, who in those moments speaks to our spirits in a way that is greater than the sum of any words and reminds us that we are truly God's child and that as part of the church, we are truly Christ's bride. Fasting is a great way of preparing our hearts for these kinds of moments, but God can bring them any time through people, creation and circumstance, but he especially reminds us of this when the Bible is read or in the gathered church.

5. He empowers us for the obedience that flows from faith in Christ - 1 Peter 1:2, John 14:15, 1 Corinthians 14:5

Paul introduces his letter to the Romans by saying that God set him apart for calling the Gentiles into the obedience that is by faith. Christians are not expected to remain as they are on the day they got converted but to grow in maturity. That maturity comes the same way they got converted, by hearing, believing and obeying (aligning with) the truth. The hearing, believing and obeying that began their spiritual life is the same process that continues to sustain and flourish it. Hearing, believing and obeying is like taking, chewing and swallowing food. Food is only any good to us if it is eaten. God's truth is only any value to us if we will take it into ourselves and act on it. The goal of all this is that we become more like Jesus, or to put it another way, to take on the family likeness by bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our hearts. It is also by the Spirit that we exercise the gifts of the Spirit which are both “natural and supernatural” (more on this in the coming weeks), engage in spiritual warfare and transform the world, taking down everything that sets itself up in opposition to God. And it is by the Spirit that we not only obey once, but persevere, in that obedience to the very end growing continually in the likeness and work of God. When we disobey God, we grieve the Holy Spirit, who is standing / sitting / lying with us in the same room.

6. He is the great stage manager of history - 2 Peter 1:21, Matthew 10:29-31, John 14:23, Revelation 21:3

Like a stage manager working under the authority of the director to ensure the show happens the way it should, not only is the Spirit at work in the lives of individual believers, he is at work orchestrating all human history according to the Father’s will so that all people might see the excellence of Jesus the Son. We see this in clearly in the Bible where he gives prophecy and then fulfils it, but his influence on history didn’t stop when the Bible was completed. He is also moving human history towards its great conclusion – that God is preparing the earth to be a home where he can live with his people forever. In Genesis 1 we see the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters partnering with the Son, under the Father's instruction, bringing light into darkness, life out of death, order out of chaos and beautiful, multi-coloured diversity out of boring singularity. As a climax to it all, God plants a garden where he can be at home with human beings. Human history is the story of God moving house, from temporary dwellings with Israel to a final home with all his people who, through the life and death of Christ, have been gathered from every people group in the world - from Garden to Tabernacle to Temple in the Old Testament through to human hearts and eventually the whole creation in the New Testament. God isn't setting up home in our hearts to prepare us for "going to Heaven," God is preparing our hearts and the whole creation through both the mundane and the miraculous, to be a place where he can live with us - forever.

7. He is preparing the world for metamorphosis - Romans 8:21, 2 Peter 3:12, Revelation 22:17

That moving house will happen when Jesus returns. At that point, all those who have refused to love and obey the truth will be driven from the earth into outer darkness, The church, both dead and alive will, by the Spirit, rise to meet Jesus in the air like a bride watching and waiting for the bridegroom, and running down the drive to meet him when he comes, and she will take him into his new home - the earth, which having been refined and renewed, will have become a fitting home for God to live in with his people, and the prayer that they have prayed ever since Jesus commanded will have finally been answered for it will truly be"on the Earth as it is in Heaven."

Are you ready for this? If not, what do you need to hear, believe and obey?

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Rowan Williams' Excellent 5mins on Prayer

Probably the best 5mins I have ever heard out of the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Filmed by my cousin, and posted on his website here.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Life for the Body: A Communion Exhortation

Communion - the communal act of sharing bread and wine in the gathered church, is often cast as a memorial act. We remember Christ's death, a past event. His body broken (the bread) and his life poured out in death (the wine).

But, when Jesus instituted this New Testament bread and wine ritual, (Lk. 22:19-20), he was catching up so much more of the Bible story, than we often appreciate. It's fundamental to remember Christ's death in the bread and wine, but there is much more going on. For Jesus didn't stay dead, as the angel said (Mk. 16:6, Lk. 24:6), he rose again. And that resurrected Lord of the Universe, comes to his church today, that he might fill her with strength and joy.

One of the pictures that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between Christ and his Church is that of Head and Body. Christ is the head, and we, the church, are his body (Eph.4:15, 5:23, Col. 1:18, 2:19). This image has many applications, but for our purpose here, it's significant because all life which the body receives comes through the head.

The energy the body needs from food in order to function properly, comes to it through the head from the mouth. The air the body needs to fuel all the processes that go on in the body, comes to it through the head from the nose. The information the body needs to act rightly comes to it through the head from the eyes and ears whether that be "Body get out of the way of that oncoming bus!" or "Body, serve this person in a way that Jesus would."

Christ is our head, he is our man in Heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and all that he, the head, receives now from his Father, he gives to his body - the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33).

Christ is our daily bread, (John 6:35) he is our sustenance, our strength for the road of life. But he is also our "wine", our joy giver, our celebration and our glory - bringing us into the joy of his Father (John 17:13).

So, the risen Lord Jesus, bids us to come to the communion table and as we remember in the bread, his body broken, somehow, mysteriously, Christ comes to be bread for us now and nourish us for the road of life. And as we remember his lifeblood poured out, again, somehow, mysteriously, Christ comes to us to fill us with his love, joy and life.

And all so that we, his body, might enjoy (worship) him and sacrificially serve his world until he comes again.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Myth of Leviticus Difficulty

Far from being a lot of new rules for the Israelites to figure out, Leviticus takes things that God’s people are already doing and translates them into a new expression. When you read Genesis and Exodus, you can clearly see that people already have understanding about how to do much of this stuff already. For example:
  • They make sacrifices – Genesis 4
  • They have a sexual ethics code- Genesis 38
  • They understand what it means to be in the world but not of it in their economic actions– Genesis 23
  • They know which animals are clean and which are unclean - Genesis 7
So Leviticus is about taking things to the next level making them more beautiful and glorious.

Moreover, we appear to have assumed that Leviticus is a hard book, with loads of rules, 617 to be precise. But when you stack those 617 against the 307 you need to know, just to pass your driving test, suddenly, everything is set in perspective. And that 307 doesn’t include all the unspoken etiquettes of what you need to do in certain situations after you pass your test. And that’s just for driving a car!! Did you check your tyre tread before you last drove?

We have rules for governing how we run our houses or borrow money to buy them, rules about how to bring up our children, rules about how we interact at work, rules about how we go on holiday, never mind all the rules about crimes like robbing a bank, but when was the last time you found yourself saying “Too many rules – how am I going to get on with my life?”

When was the last time you thought: “I’m so grateful there’s a law against sexual relations with animals because I’m really feeling tempted that way...” Chances are. if you have never thought about that, then most of the Israelites who were given this law didn’t either.

Yes, the world of Leviticus is different, but it's probably no more different than visiting another culture, e.g. China. Yes, it's different, but it's also still very much the same. So think of Leviticus, not as a dry rule book, but as a tourist guide to another people who are different, but at root, just like you and me.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

11 Reasons Why Leviticus Overwhelms Us

There is probably no book of the Bible more ignored than Leviticus. It feels so alien.

But its alien nature is probably as much due to our unquestioned assumptions as any essential difficulty. Have a look at the 11 underlined reasons below, some of them are at best half-baked truths, others are plain crazy. How many of them have you unwittingly swallowed over the years?
  1. Simplicity = purity. There are a lot of seemingly irrelevant picky details in Leviticus.
  2. Here, God seems angry with the people and not like the nice Jesus we know, God isn’t angry with us anymore, so I don’t need to engage with this stuff.
  3. “Progressism” (C. S. Lewis called it “Chronological snobbery”) Like racism but with progress. Technological progress (iPhone 6 is better than iPhone 3 etc.) leaves us feeling that newer is better and that people who lived in the past were stupid because they hadn’t worked out how to make the Internet and they kept slaves. So because Leviticus takes place in the past, it is inferior and therefore has little important to tell us.
  4. When we open the Bible, we want God to say something relevant to our life today. We long for a rapid emotional connection. Easy when reading the Psalms, difficult when reading Leviticus, so we ignore Leviticus.
  5. We have a strange relationship to animals. Blood sacrifice is alien to us. We love to eat them, but we can’t bear slaughtering them.
  6. We are automatically suspicious of rituals, institutions and especially organized religion.
  7. We believe the only way to be authentic is in expressing our individuality and in being “original,” not in repeating rituals. (This is the essence of the consumer economy.)
  8. We think about our salvation primarily in individual terms, not in terms of a community.
  9. We think that God’s grace is to be experienced primarily as an inward / psychological reality, rather than an outward / community reality. One expression of this is that “modern” churches will more often climax their meetings with prayer ministry time, rather than communion.
  10. We assume that the trajectory of human history is from the physical to the spiritual, that we will shed all our physical forms. (This is a version of Gnostic thought, which at root is heretical.)
  11. Faith is first and foremost a private matter.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Notes on Ephesians 5:1-20

Big picture
  • Paul, writing this letter in prison and awaiting either acquittal or execution, draws on his Jewish heritage, using the same structure to teach the Ephesians as Moses used with Israel at Sinai in the book of Deuteronomy which was his parting address (esp. Deut. 33) – reminding them of all that God has done for them (Eph. 1-3) and how they should now live (Eph. 4-6) as they begin to play their part in the renewal of not just a land, but the whole world.
  • If you want to get a feel for what Paul is doing in Ephesians, it would be worth taking an hour to read the book of Deuteronomy and feel the similarities.
  • Paul speaks not as a master to slaves, wagging his finger, but as a father to his beloved children, charging them as he departs, to continue what he began and take it to the next level in scale and beauty.

Context of Passage: Christ defines how to walk in love (v1-2)
  • Moses told the Israelites to “choose life” (Deut 30:19) by walking in all of God’s law. Paul tells the Ephesians in view of all that God has done through Christ to “walk in love.” Walking is possible for all (assuming no medical complication), easy to do and a long haul activity, but it’s not glamorous and there are no earthly rewards for doing it (unless you’re a toddler doing it for the first time).
  • Christ is the definition and source of that love, not feelings, science or culture. What Christ said and did is the pattern we should follow.
  • Christ offered himself up to God above (Heb. 9:14) to give life to the world down below, restoring our friendship with God. But he also calls us to do the same (Rom. 12:1-2, 1 John 5), to crucify our self-centred agendas and offer ourselves up a living sacrifices (Matt. 16:24) walking in the footsteps of Christ our bridegroom, older brother and master so that we too can honour our Heavenly Father and give life to the world.

Walk as a giver, not a taker (v3-7)
  • Paul now follows with some examples of what it means to walk in love. The list is not exhaustive but a flavour of how God’s people should live.
  • Life is a mix of giving and receiving, but like Jesus, the Christian is to primarily receive from God (directly and through the church) and give to the world.
  • We stray into sin when instead of giving ourselves for the life of the world like Jesus did, we become takers, desiring and / or stealing what does not belong to us, or giving away that which is not ours to give. Sexual immorality, however consensual, is this kind of dark giving and taking of each other. Impurity is taking things into ourselves things that pollute. In the Old Testament, that was represented in things like bacon sandwiches, but now it is more the lies, empty ideas and distractions that lead us away from Christ. Coveting is desiring things we have no right to desire – like someone else’s...
  • “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks...”(Lk. 6:45) This kind of lifestyle leads to a way of talking that doesn’t reflect reality, instead, it reflects our mistaken belief that we are the centre of our (own) universe. It’s not so much a prohibition against all toilet humour (the Bible has toilet humour, see Judges 3), or of using “rude” words (e.g. Phil. 3:8) but it is to say that what you say should be worth hearing, not just filling air space, but wholesome, full of wise judgment, honouring God and benefitting to people.
  • Living as a taker not a giver is evidence that the grace of God is not at work within you, and if God is not at work within you, what confidence do you have that you will inherit eternal life, you’re just a fool – Like Jonah asleep on a sinking ship (See Jonah 2).
  • This is not a call for Christians to retreat from life and society, for fear of becoming “polluted.” Christ calls us to be in the world, but not of it. Love compels us to draw near to those who have no hope and share our lives with them, but do not knowingly tie yourself unwisely to relationships that will force you to compromise your allegiance to Christ. Engage with life as it is, and ensure you have regular retreat times to drink deeply from the fresh water of the Spirit as you fellowship with the Father and the Son in the community of the church as well as “in your chair.” Otherwise you could sleepwalk into some very painful scenarios.

Walk in the Light, as the Light (v8-14)
  • Being children of the light, means being like the moon, the moon has no light of its own, but it does give light to the earth. How? By reflecting the light of the sun.
  • What we see in Christ as he shows himself and by extension, his Father is what we are to shine forth to the world. This is our highest joy, privilege and duty.
  • Exposing darkness doesn’t mean deliberately going after wickedness and saying “Look!! Aha! I told you so!” It means that living like Jesus naturally brings all things into the light, both good and bad, so that you can see them for what they really are. In the dark, reality is distorted, some things look terrifying but are not, others are not dangerous, but become so and real threats and dangers cannot be assessed and then neutralised / escaped.
  • Light enables you to make good judgements and take action. You would never allow a surgeon to operate on you in the dark.
  • However rude our culture may declare making moral judgements to be, (irony being we ALL, Christian or not, are making judgements of each other ALL the time) it is part and parcel of growing in true Christian maturity. If you never make any judgements, you will remain immature and infantile in life, not just in your faith. The aim is to grow in making good judgements, full of grace and truth (John 3:19).
  • Darkness cannot resist light, it has to flee, evil may appear to triumph in the short term, we may have setbacks but light ALWAYS finally triumphs. Darkness has to flee or be converted.

Walk in service as you patiently await the fulfilment of promise (v15-20)
  • Rather than explain this section line by line, consider the parallels of Exodus 32. Moses goes up the mountain to meet with God, the people get impatient waiting for him to bring them the oracles of God, so they take matters into their own hands, and in the pursuit of happiness, fall into idolatry and all its associated evils including illicit sex, excessive drug use (alcohol, that is) and bawdy rock and roll.
  • The days are evil, God has made promises to you and me about this life and the next, but he won’t always fulfil them in the time frame we want. The question then will become will we wait for him to come through for us, or take matters into our own hands. Do you want the “man-made joy” of drunkenness that comes by taking matters into your own hands ahead of time or the true joy of the Spirit that comes from waiting patiently for God to be true to his word?
  • Don’t short circuit God’s purposes. Humble yourself and busy yourself in service to others as you wait patiently to inherit the promises he has given you. Yes, be honest and open about how you feel, but don’t overly focus on the thing you feel denied of, it will tempt you to sin, and make you annoying to other people. Rather, praise and thank God for all he has given you and busy yourself in the love and service of others.
  • If they wanted music, most people across the world and down history, would not be able to turn on the radio or MP3 player, they would have to sing to themselves. Sing to God and yourself as you go about your business (The Israelites would use Psalms 120-134 as they journeyed the road to the temple, they are good for the road of our lives too.) The songs we sing in our hearts are reflected in the words we speak to one another. If your heart is full of trivial / trite-cliché songs, you’ll be full of trivial / trite-cliché words for others. If you are full of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, you will be full of wisdom for others.

Selection of Questions to choose from / chew over:
  • How does the fact that Paul is writing these words like a father to children soon before his death, (like Moses in Deuteronomy) change the way you hear them?
  • What does it mean that Christ is the definition and source of love? How does that help you obey the command to walk in love and become a “living sacrifice”?
  • When you consider Jesus as the source and definition of love, how does that change the way you think about politically incorrect term of conquering the world for Jesus?
  • In summary, are you a giver or a taker in life? What are you giving to the world? What are you taking from it? What would Christ’s assessment of your life be?
  • What does it mean to live as Light and expose darkness?
  • Are you pursuing an infantile mindset by being “non-judgmental” or seeking to grow in a mature mindset, making good judgements that are full of grace and truth?
  • In which areas of life are you tempted to give up waiting for God’s timing and take matters into your own hands? How can you busy yourself with serving others so you don’t become ensnared or just a bore to those who have to listen to you?
  • What songs are going around your head / heart at the moment, are they benefiting you or others? If not, then what needs to change?

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Six Good Friday Meditations @ RFC Church Offices 12pm-3pm

From 12pm-3pm, we have created a space at the church offices, for those who would like it, to mark Good Friday and marvel together on the greatest sacrifice in history.

We will sing songs, pray, share thoughts and ponder silently. There will be six half hour slots finishing with communion. Come and join us for one, two, three or more of them.

Each half hour slot will stand on its own as a distinct meditation, but for those who wish to stay for more than one, there is clearly a progression through the events of the story.

Whilst there will be no official child care, there will be a creche area for children to play in, should parents wish to come and do a tag team job of one watching over their little ones whilst the other takes part in the meditation and vice versa.

We'll be following Jesus' sacrifice through the eyes of John:
  • 12pm - The Glory - John 13:1-11
  • 12:30pm - The Gift - John 14:15-31
  • 1pm - Gethsemane - John 18:1-11
  • 1:30pm - Gabbatha - John 19:1-16
  • 2pm - Golgotha - John 19:17-37
  • 2:30pm - Grave - John 19:38-42 followed by communion
...and seeing how Jesus, far from being the victim of circumstance, is the LORD who remains in total authority over everything even his killers - doing everything according to plan, giving himself up for the sake of those who hate him.

There is not a god like him!

Monday, 23 February 2015

On Pillaging Corpses

So the obvious follow on question from the last post is how do we apply the Old Testament Law today? Is it binding?

Many try to divide it up and say that the ceremonial law can be ignored, but the social / moral law of the OT cannot, but it's just not that easy to divvy up simply. Like trying to take the golden thread out of a multicoloured jumper. You might succeed, but what use is the thread to you without the jumper and what state is the jumper left in?

Or to talk more morbidly as per our title, if the law was crucified with Christ and in Christ, then choosing which bits apply and which don't is like dissecting a corpse and keeping the organs you think are important or that you like the look of… Very Frankensteinian, not very new creation.

Unfortunately, I'm not going to give a clear answer, (cos I don't know it). Suffice to say that we study the OT law with the help of the Spirit to gain wisdom. In the OT, the law was a custodian of God's people (Gal. 3:24), but now it is an adviser. Before it ruled over us, (Gal. 3:23) now it advises God's people on how to rule (Matt. 5:14, 16).

The early church gave guidance to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:20), but rather than being the final word on the subject, I think it is the beginning of a process of growing in wisdom which is to last the whole of the church age and which all God's people are involved in as they work out what it means to bring the fulness of the kingdom of God into all of creation.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Law Crucified, Wisdom Resurrected

When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he gave them a prohibition - they could eat of ANY tree they wanted, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Given that earlier, EVERY tree and plant was given for food, this ban can only have been a temporary one, otherwise you have an internal contradiction within the opening chapters of the bible!

In the bible, the "knowledge of good and evil" is less about "experience" and more about right judgement. Those who judge rightly pass tests, prove themselves to be mature and ready to rule over creation - ready to step into the destiny they have been assigned. This was why Adam and Eve should have refused the serpent, they would have exercised sound judgement and God may well then have led them straight to that forbidden tree and said, "Now you can tuck in." But they didn't, they took what they had no right to take and became like the serpent, twisting the truth to their own advantage.

God gave Adam and Eve a rule - a law. Following that law should have led them seek God's help to work out what that rule meant in every circumstance they found themselves in, which would in turn have led to wisdom and maturity.

The Law in whatever form it comes, is never able to account for every eventuality, but understanding the spirit in which it was written and applying it faithfully in every eventuality where it comes to bear is the way to maturity.

King Solomon was considered wise (at least at the beginning) not because he applied the law in a robotic way, (for often there was no law for a given circumstance), but because he perceived the true nature of what was in front of him, and over which he applied the spirit of the Torah (Deut. 17:18-19).

The same is true in our journey from childhood to adulthood.  There are some laws our parents laid down in our family lives which were temporary - e.g. "When you play outside, don't go beyond the end of the road." to "Don't steal. Some of those rules we no longer live by - I have gone way beyond the road where my parents live, others we continue to live by - "Do not steal." Knowing the categories in which each of those fall, and making new categories for situations we never had to face in our childhood is a function of wisdom and maturity.

Now when Christ died, the law died with him. Indeed he was the embodiment of the law - it was perfectly fulfilled in him. But the law, in and of itself was not bad, but good. Why should a good thing from God be consigned to the grave? The Law was not guilty of sin, we were.

Just as Christ died as the embodiment of the law, he rose again having transformed the law into wisdom. The law went through a chrysalis moment at the cross.

In Acts 2, God did not reissue a revised Law like he did at the first Pentecost at Mt Sinai about 2000yrs previously, he poured out the Spirit who gives wisdom.

The point being that as we read the Bible with the help of the Spirit we might understand how to apply the whole of God's Law - the word of God, to all of life in every glorious and inglorious variation.

As God takes up residence in human hearts, (John 14:23), the people of God have now been given to rule over creation. Not robotically to apply the law, but in the power of the Spirit of Wisdom (who is the same Spirit who wrote the Law!!), to bring all of creation into the same joyful, overflowing happiness of the life of God which they now experience.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

On Hats and the "Problem" Lent is for Moderns

In a blogpost here, Alastair Roberts makes a brilliant observation of what the practice of Lent is like for Modern Christians:
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between the ways that hats function in men’s clothing today as opposed to a century ago. Whereas the hat was once ‘uniform’, signifying one’s office or station in life, and was worn by almost all men in certain contexts, now the hat is an item of personal and often eccentric expression. When I wear a hat today, I am typically expressing my personal style and individuality in a manner that makes me stand out from the crowd. Even were I to wear the exact same clothing as my great-grandfather, I would communicate a sharply different set of social messages. The contemporary aficionado of traditional liturgy can be akin to a man wearing a top hat: whatever he may intend, it will be perceived—and will all too typically function—as a personal affectation, rather than a uniform expression of his submission to an identity held in common with others. The passage from a world of given identities to one of extensive choice isn’t easily reversed, as even in our attempts to accomplish such a reversal we are typically often reasserting the semblance of the former through the mode of the latter.

I am struck by the degree to which our choice, autonomy, and individualism shape even those concepts that we may appeal to against them. In our celebration of ‘tradition’ we can often be little more than appreciative consumers of some nostalgic antiquity, rather than being subject to the tutelage of our forefathers in the faith. ‘Liturgy’ is often less about common worship than it is about personal aesthetics. ‘Community’ can stand for individuals’ quests for the ‘passing frisson’ of togetherness (Searle), rather than a genuine submission to the Church and its leadership as defining realities in our lives. For all of the celebration of ‘story’ over the last few decades, the ‘big story’ that people speak of is seldom permitted to assign its meanings and assert its authority within our lives and world and rather becomes a source for the individual religious subject’s selective self-definition. In our quest for authenticity, we risk establishing a simulacrum of the historical Church, a sort of ‘living museum’, which looks like the original reality on the surface but whose deeper dynamics have been substituted for radically different animating forces.
That's not to say that it has no value, (and Roberts isn't arguing against the practice), it's just that its full value will never be appreciated by us who breathe a cultural air (personal choice etc) which is so different to the one in which these practices were birthed.

So God bless you if you are marking Lent in some way, and God bless you if you aren't doing anything specific.

Whatever your choice, (and that's kind of "the problem…") may you know the living God better and more joyfully by the time we get to Easter.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Alive by Grace Through Faith in Christ: Notes on Ephesians 2:1-10

Introductory Remarks
  • Having set out what God has done for his readers – the Ephesian believers, and telling how he is asking God to complete what he has begun in them, he now works through the same story of salvation again, but looking at THE BIG ISSUE OF THE DAY - how BOTH Jews and Gentiles were cut off from God, and how in Christ BOTH Jew and Gentile have been saved, but whereas before, the Jews had elevated status, now, BOTH Jews and Gentiles have been infinitely elevated in Christ and have received ALL the same blessings as each other.
  • Paul’s letter would presumably be a summary / reminder of all he taught them when he was there for three months (Acts 19:8).
  • The foundation for Paul’s teaching is the Old Testament – the better we know it, the better we can understand what he says.
  • These ten verses are a brilliant summary of our condition and God’s action. They also totally slay any notion that we might be optimistic about the human race without God. Responsibility for our actions is part of the glory of being human – being made in God’s image.

Our Dire Predicament: v1-3
Verse 1
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins
  • You = Gentiles – majority of Ephesian church.
  • Dead = separated from God (which is why you can still sound like you’re living)
  • Transgression = external, crossing a boundary and stealing what isn’t yours, creating debt
  • Sin = pollution, a contagion that spreads and takes over every element of your nature (think Ebola, but worse)
Verse 2
in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.
  • All prompted by the following of the devil – deceiving us that we could and should live without God – seeking a glory and reign all our own (John 8:44).
  • All are slaves to this corrupted nature through the spirit of disobedience at work in us.
  • Genesis 3-4 plays this out and is the foundation of Paul’s teaching. (For more on this, come to Bible School!)
Verse 3
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
  • Us = Paul + Jews. Whilst on the outside, God picked them out and drew them near, giving them the law which helped them order their worship and their society as they waited for the promised Messiah and ministered to the world, they were still full on the inside of all the same corruption that the Gentiles had (see v1-2, also Isaiah 29:13) They were like “Christians” who come to church and go through the motions out of comfortable/cultural familiarity or the desire to get out of hell free, not love of God.
  • Together, Jew and Gentile were all heaping up God’s wrath upon their heads. The greatest problem we have is not the devil, or the world, it’s God who is justly outraged at our rebellion against him. Our outrage towards things like ISIS and Boko Haram are a glimpse of God’s wrath towards the human race.

The Love of God is the Turning Point: v4
Verse 4
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,
  • Like a vet moving towards a rabid dog who has just tried to bite him, God moves towards us in mercy and grace, not because of any good he sees in us, for all we have is enmity towards him, but because God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit is an eternal fountain of love and life.

God’s Gracious Action: v5-10
Verse 5
made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
  • At the cross, God took all the consequences of or sin into himself, judged and destroyed them. So that now, all who answer the call of the Spirit are made alive – that is: made fit for his presence, cleansed from the corruption of sin and have all their debts to God and creation paid off. (John 17:3)
  • We contributed nothing to this in the same way that a dead person contributes nothing to their resurrection.
Verse 6
And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
  • However, not only has God cleaned us up, he has poured out honour upon us. He hasn’t just made us fit for his presence, he has made us to reign with him, he hasn’t just paid off our debts, but he has filled us to overflowing with the immeasurable richness of God, who is the Holy Spirit, he hasn’t just called us co-workers with his Son, he has made us his sons and daughters whom he loves with the very same love with which he loves the Son! (John 17:23)
Verse 7
in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
  • The Church in her elevated status and authority is the testimony to the world (this age) and the Heavens (the age to come) – the angels and demons that God is not only powerful and clever, but more than that, good kind, loving, faithful and infinitely diverse in the expression of his beautiful new creations (us), like an artist who constantly produces masterpieces out of dung! Not because God selfishly wants credit as many ignorantly assume, but because he joyfully can’t help himself – he loves to share his goodness and see others flourish. (And yes he IS worthy of praise – in case you were wondering!)
Verse 8
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God
  • Paul reiterates the point – Salvation is nothing from us, all from God. We don’t “make ourselves wake up”, the alarm goes off, will you switch it off and go back to sleep or will you hear it and awaken to the brightness of day that is here?
  • Faith is receiving and believing what God says and has done. If faith is centred in our willpower, then the opposite is doubt; if it is centred in God, the opposite is unbelief.
  • We need faith not only to believe the goodness of God, but also how bad we really are too. Human eyes can neither see nor believe the depth of their own depravity or the magnitude of the love of God. Unbelief (refusing the testimony of the Holy Spirit about Christ) is the only unforgivable sin.
Verse 9
not by works, so that no one can boast.
  • If anyone could boast about earning salvation, Paul could, but he doesn’t, he knows it’s crazy (Phil. 3:1-11).
Verse 10
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
  • Just as we walked in the pattern of this world, now we have been recreated in the image of Christ, so we should think, talk and act in a way that reflects that spiritual transformation.
  • We have been called into an adventure and a mission mapped out by God, which is to be like God and share the immeasurable grace we have received with the rest of creation, with family, friends, colleagues, church family, public life, the environment, the tribes and nations of the world etc. to the praise and glory of God.

Suggested Questions for Reflection / Discussion in Lifegroup
  • To see the Dead Come Alive video by fullofeyes again, click here.
  • Try to summarise this bible text in your own words, it will help you understand it.
  • Was there anything here that you found new / offensive / difficult to accept?
  • When you normally talk about becoming a Christian or the Christian life, how do you describe them, what language do you use? How might this bible text help you to understand and describe them better?
  • Now that you’re “awake” in God, what are the things that make you want to ignore him and go back to sleep?
  • What are the good works that God has prepared for you to walk in?

Sunday, 1 February 2015

A Communion Prayer

We had communion today at church and for the occasion I wrote a prayer, based in part on the passage we were looking at this morning in Ephesians 1.

We said it together before eating and drinking. Liturgical communal praying is, of course, nothing new for many of our brothers and sisters around the world and down history, but for us, it was something a bit different...
Heavenly Father,

We are gathered here before you
by the power of the Holy Spirit,
as your adopted sons and daughters,
united to your beloved Son Jesus Christ,
who has redeemed us from all our sin
by the shedding of his own precious blood.

As we eat this bread
and drink this fruit of the vine,
we give you thanks and praise
for all that you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done.
And we ask that together you would strengthen us
in the knowledge of the Truth,
deepen our understanding
of the Hope to which you have called us
and intensify our longing for you
and all that you love,
that we might joyfully and obediently
prepare the whole earth for your sure return.


Saturday, 10 January 2015

Martha and the Older Brother - When Good is the Enemy of Great

As Scott was speaking beautifully last week at church about Mary and Martha, and how, in the busyness of life, we must find time to sit at the Master's feet, I found myself thinking that Martha sounds a lot like the older brother from the parable of the prodigal son.

It says of her in Luke 10:
But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Here's what it says of the older brother in Luke 15:
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Both were so focused on "the tasks" that they missed the greater thing that was going on. In one case, the return of a lost loved one, in the other, the Lord of the Universe was here to enjoy their company.

And interestingly, both of the names "Mary" and "Martha" mean "rebellious." If Western Christian tradition is right, Mary had been a prostitute and Martha had been the diligent one. But if we are to consider Martha as rebellious, then what is her crime? That she allowed good to become the enemy of great. The Master was here, and she was more interested in the table decorations.

There is a parallel in the parable of the Prodigal, the younger son squanders his inheritance with prostitutes, whilst the older son never leaves his father's house for the sake of his duty. When the younger son returns to joy and feasting, the resentment of the older son towards the Father is palpable - he was more interested in his tasks and/or building up his inheritance.

Both wanted affirmation for their tasks and their service more than they wanted to share in the joy of their Father / Master.

In both cases the ending is left open. Did Martha leave her identity-affirming tasks behind and go in to sit with the others or did she run back to them flustered, upset and feeling misunderstood? Did the older son stay out in the field or did he come in and join the party?

If anyone is guilty of putting tasks for Jesus above time with Jesus, and wanting be affirmed in them, I am. I make good the enemy of great.

The ending is still open. How will it be written?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Genuinely Good Christian Film…

Most "Christian" films I watch leave me annoyed, either because they are too blatant and in your face, or they go so far off script (Like Noah) that you really wonder if you're watching the film you thought you'd paid to see.

So, off the back of this recommendation, I watched this refreshingly different film:

The reviewer said:
Good Christian Movies Are Being Made, but They're Being Ignored.

Audiences largely ignored Believe Me and The Song, which is a true shame, because both movies are explicitly Christian and both made for compelling viewing...

Believe Me is ... a roaring satire of Christian ministry that doubles as a goofy heist movie. It follows three college students who come up with a fake, charity: water-type ministry to pay off their student loans, and then struggle to keep up the act. Watching these guys try to learn the ins and outs of Christian culture is about as funny as any movie got in 2014.

It's not completely clear why these movies failed to capture the same word-of-mouth buzz that accompanied God's Not Dead, but it may be that both ignored lesson No. 2. The morals were not on the bottom shelf, served piping hot and easy to digest. Believe Me avoided easy answers, and The Song did not encourage audiences to text any spiritual imperatives to wayward friends. In short, both movies might have been just a little too challenging.
I think the reviewer is spot on.

It's a film that will make many Christians both laugh and cringe as they see themselves cleverly and satirically reflected in some of the characters. (I was a bit like Gabriel in my university days.) It also shows how the machine of "Christian Industry" plays in the murky shadows of less than squeaky clean ethical practices justifying it with the excuse of protecting the Faithful and the reputation of the ministry.

And whilst we non-American Christians may be tempted to cynically (enviously?) write much of it off as a quirk of the American approach to culture and community, if we are willing to be honest for a moment, these days, we're more like that than ever, especially when we become "too big to fail" in our own eyes.

It isn't available in UK via normal channels, but you can watch interviews, trailers and outtakes or even pay for a VHX download from the official website.