Saturday, 15 September 2018

How can I control what I say?

James 3.1-12

A couple of weeks ago we saw how James speaks about three marks of true religion:

- Controlling the tongue
- Showing care to orphans and widows
- Growing in holiness

Today we look at the first of those three – controlling the tongue - because it seems slightly odd.

Why does James mention controlling the tongue, when there are so many other things that could have been said? Why is it so important?

Of course, James has got nothing particular against the tongue. It is a big muscle that is used for tasting, chewing and swallowing. It is also used – and this is what James is really on about – for speaking.

And in these verses, James gives us several reasons why we should control the tongue

1. The tongue, the spoken word, is incredibly powerful

At the very beginning, when the beginning began, and time came into being, God – we are told – spoke a word: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light.

It was God’s spoken word which brought creation into being. It was his spoken word which gave life to human beings.

And this is the word that James has spoken about which has given new life, spiritual life to you and me.

In 1.18, we are told that we are given birth by the word of truth
In 1.21, he speaks of the implanted word, that has come into us, that has power to save our souls.

God’s word is an active word.

John describes Jesus as ‘the logos’ of God – the word of God, the reason of God. But when Jerome came to translate ‘logos’ from the original Greek into Latin, he used the word ‘verbum’ – from which we also get our word, ‘verb’. And it is a wise translation, because the ‘verb’ is a doing word, and the Logos, the Word, the verbum of God is a doing word.

The spoken word is incredibly powerful.

I know it can send people to sleep, but it is the word which wakes people up. It brings life to people. Paul talks about how blessed are the feet of those who preach the good news – who tell people about Jesus Christ, so that they can hear and choose to receive this word – and discover new life.

And James writes of how the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse.

I know little about horse riding, but I understand that the horse is controlled, directed, by the thing in its mouth, pulling it in one direction or another.

Or the tongue is like a rudder. I occasionally sail small dinghies. But I’m not a great sailer and usually have mishaps. On two or three occasions now my rudder has fallen off. Which is a bit of a problem. You are rather helpless. Fortunately, I sail in a narrow estuary, so I simply end up stuck on some mud bank.

The rudder is rather important – it controls the direction of a small dinghy. It controls the direction of huge ocean tanker.

The tongue, James says, makes great boasts. It does major stuff.

Words shape how we see reality. For those of us from the West, inclusive language has been a real political power battle. But it is important, because it shapes how people see things.

I remember about 30 years ago hearing a friend preach. In his sermon he used an illustration of an engineer, and in the illustration he spoke of how ‘she’ made a decision. I remember being caught up short – because I had never really heard anybody talk of an engineer as a ‘she’. You sort of assumed that they are always going to be a ‘he’. So a word changed a whole set of assumptions that I held.

And speeches and oratory are important. They can inspire, move people to tears, whip up crowds to violence. Think of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar; think of Abraham Lincoln, Pushkin, Churchill. Words have shaped nations, defined how people think about themselves and given them self-understanding

And later James writes of the power of words addressed to God. The words spoken in prayer: they bring healing, forgiveness and they can do great things.

So the tongue, the spoken word, has enormous power

2. The tongue can do great damage

James speaks of how the tongue can be like a tiny spark that sets a forest on fire.

We have a saying: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words they cannot hurt me’.
It is, of course, not true.

Again, words shape how we see reality.

Think of the words that we use for other people, how we separate people who are like us (nashi) from those who are not like us. It is interesting that those of us from the UK who are here like to call ourselves expatriates. We call those who come and live in our country migrants.

Alison says that the big word that she hears in the playgroup where she helps is the word ‘mine’. If you say that something is mine, then I am saying it is not yours, and I am claiming control over it.

It is my toy, my possession, my church, my right.

And that little word can do such great damage.

And there is the damage that is caused by the lies, the fake news, the one-sided news

And then there is the vindictive, cruel word: the spoken word that can destroy a person, rip a person’s reputation into pieces; that can ridicule, humiliate and crush

I read of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went with a colleague to the ladies toilets, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You can guess what happened. Out of one of the cubicles came Beth. She rushed out, and left the place of work immediately in floods of tears. She didn’t come back the following day; she didn’t come back at all. The woman who tells the story says that it is one of the most awful moments in her life. She tried to get in touch with Beth but she wasn’t able to. And she finishes off by saying, ‘And I am a Christian; I am someone who calls Jesus Christ Lord’.

And there is the gossip (and yes, we can dress it up in Christian terms), the backbiting, the swearing and profanity, the cruel unthinking comment: ‘you are so stupid’. Jesus warns his listeners that before God we will be held accountable for simply calling another person, ‘a fool’.

And the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used, when we are silent when we should be speaking out.

Many of us here will have been hurt badly by words – but if we are honest we will know that we have also used words to hurt other people.

3. The tongue, James tells us, is a window into our heart – it shows us that we desperately need God

We cannot see into a person’s heart. We cannot see the things that motivate them. But we can hear the words that they speak.

And the problem is that the tongue betrays us.

Some of us are very good at putting on a persuasive show – and then suddenly the tongue betrays us. Out splurge our inner thoughts. And the problem is that when they are out, they are out. You can’t put words back in. As I said a couple of weeks ago, they are like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube: once it is out, you can’t get it back in!

Baxter, a C17th preacher said, and it is a brilliant comment, “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”

James describes the tongue as ‘a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell’ (v6).

It is a world of iniquity: an agent of the sinful world among the different parts of our body. It is a fifth columnist living in you. You put up a good front and suddenly out comes the muck

It is set on fire by hell: all the anger, rage, fear, resentments, prejudices. That is the fuel which is deep within us – and it comes out through the tongue. Jesus speaks about that. He says it is not the stuff out there that comes into us and defiles us. It is the stuff that is in here which defiles us.

It stains the body. Imagine a bride in a stunning white dress. And there right on the back is a massive ink stain. That, says James, is what the tongue does to us.
Recently there have been a number of cases where people have been completely undone, their reputation ripped to pieces, because of things that they have said which have been recorded, or messages that they have tweeted.

It sets on fire the cycle of nature: It leads to more of the same. I say something that comes from the pit that is in me. And you respond with something that comes from the pit inside you – and the cycle escalates. James speaks about this in the next few verses. And we end up with people and communities and even brothers and sisterss not speaking with each other, hating each other, at war with each other. I think of Northern Ireland. I think of the Ukraine.

The problem is that: ‘no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison’ (v8)

Let me be clear about this:

If we remain silent – which is often a good thing – we still will not be able to control the tongue. Our inner pit will out!

There is a story told about a man who entered a silent monastery. He was allowed to say one sentence to a gathering of all the monks once a year…

If we cut out the tongue – not recommended – it will change nothing. We’ll still think the muck.

And James writes that even if we become religious we won’t tame the tongue.

Yes, we might come to church to praise God – we might praise the One who is good and beautiful and true, who loves us, who has given us life and who has created all things. We might pledge our faith and obedience and allegiance to him, our desire to serve and follow him.

And then, at coffee or later in the afternoon, we curse somebody: we make fun of them, mock them, put them down, speak bad of them – even though they are, James points out, created by God and made in his image.

With one breath we declare our love for God – and with our next breath we deride the person that he has made

I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. They agreed to confess their most besetting sins. The first said, ‘I have a problem with the women’. The second said, ‘I have a problem with drink’. The third says, ‘I am an incurable gossip’!

So what do we do? How do we control the tongue?

Because if we don’t say something about this, it will be a very honest but depressing sermon! Is there no hope?

1. Remember the power of words
– to do good or to do harm.

2. Guard your tongue as best you can.

There are the bits of wisdom that we can hold on to:
· If we can’t say anything that is good or helpful or that builds people up, don’t say anything
· Count to 10 before you respond

And those of you who are good with words need to be particularly careful.
I thank God that I am not particular quick with words. I always think of the thing I could have said, the response that would have cut them dead, about 2 hours afterwards. I think if only I had said that.
But while I would love to be quick with words, I thank God that I am not – because it often means I don’t say what I should not say.

3. Know that you will make mistakes.
Only the perfect person will not make mistakes with their speech, and you are not perfect. So when you make mistakes, and it is when, repent, say sorry – to God and to the person you have offended - and call out to God to have mercy and to change your heart

4. Don’t aspire quickly to become a teacher (and James 3.1 is speaking specifically to those who would teach the Christian faith), even if you have an ability to teach.

I would probably say a person should not aspire to become a teacher until they have messed up big time, until they have become acutely aware of their own fallenness, brokenness and sinfulness, of the pit that is deep in their heart - but who have also become aware of the astonishing acceptance, forgiveness and mercy of God

Oh, and one final thing
Come to church next week – because the next verses offer a little bit of hope!

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The three marks of true religion

James 1.17-27

I’d like us to look at those last two verses of our reading from James

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues butdeceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1.26-27)
There are three marks of true religion – and I fear that I fail on all of them!

1.       If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their heart, their religion is worthless

James speaks a great deal about the tongue. We’ll see that in a couple of weeks’ time.

It is interesting that he speaks of the tongue and not of the written word.

I think that is because, firstly very few people of his time used writing, and secondly because writing requires you to think a bit! You have to get a piece of paper and write something, and then work out how you are going to get that piece of paper to the person you want it to go to. So you start to write, and out comes all the anger and hurt, but then you need to somehow get that to the person you want to receive it. And that gives you time to stop and think, and often it means putting your brain into action. And you are given time to tear up the letter and rewrite it.

But I think, that if James was writing today, he would also include emails, whatsapps, facebook, vkontakt, instagram and twitter posts. Why? Because like speech it is immediate.

One of the things that I have heard from several people who have become bishops in the church that has shocked them is sort of language that people use in some of their emails when they write to them, even clergy. They just didn’t expect that. One of my previous bishops used to answer those emails by asking the person to rewrite their email before he would even consider replying.

But James does not simply tell us to bridle the tongue. He helps us to do so.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak (or send the email) and slow to anger’ (v19)
In other words, God gave you two of these (ears) and one of these (mouths).
Or, to use a phrase of my grandmother, before you speak – count to 10.

One thing that I do with emails that I’m tempted to write back to immediately, especially if I am hot, is that before I write, especially if it is a reply, I remove the email address of the person or people I want to send it to. It means that I don’t write it and then hit send in the heat of the moment. I’ve got to think a little bit more.

And that is even more important if we are responding in anger. Human anger may get things done, but it does not do God’s work – it does not bring about the righteousness that God asks for.

The problem is that our anger is too wrapped up in ourselves

In my case it is usually because I have felt slighted or ignored or put on or felt that I have been treated as irrelevant and insignificant. Last week we were in a restaurant, and we were waiting and waiting to be served. In the end, I went to someone to ask when the food would come. I intended to be very calm and level, but as I spoke with them I felt the anger surge in me.

So often we get angry because our ‘I’ has become too big. We think it is all about me, and about the things that I value or desire. And the problem is that the things that I value and desire are not always the right things. That is why the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ is so helpful – it reminds me of who I am, and why I am not so important. And that is why only the anger of Jesus, the Son of God, can do the work of God – because the ‘I’ of Jesus coincides completely with the ‘I’ of God.

But there is another reason that we need to bridle the tongue.

You see if we are so keen to speak, to tell others what we think, we find it very hard to listen. And James urges us to be people who listen – who listen to others (what are they really saying) and who listen to God, who listen and who receive his word.

2.       The second mark of true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress

Orphans and widows in the sort of society in which James lived were desperately vulnerable. There was no social safety net. If they had no relatives to care for them, then anything could happen.  We speak today of trafficking and slavery.

Orphans and widows are still very vulnerable in many societies today, along with other people. One thinks of refugees, or people with learning disabilities. Jesus spoke about how the world, how a society, will be judged for how it treats a member of a despised sect who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, in prison or sick.

What James is saying is that if a person has a real faith, if the word has been implanted in them, if they are born again, if they have been ‘given birth by the word of truth’ (v18), then they will show compassion to the person in need.

This is a huge subject, and I can’t really begin to touch on it today. But a faith that is not expressed in compassion for those in need is no real faith.

John writes about that. He says in his letter, How can you claim to have the love of God in you if you do not love your Christian brother or sister? How can you say to a starving person, ‘God bless you’, if you are not prepared to do something about it?

And while it is good to be part of a community which does work with widows and orphans, quite literally - MPC run a pensioners drop in every other Wednesday, and Vverh, originally started by members of St Andrew’s, run their school for orphans and people with mental disabilities here on our premises – I am not sure that we as individuals can hide behind that!

If your faith is not beginning to help you to see everyone as God sees them – with his compassion and love (whoever they are: in the next verses James challenges the church to receive every person who comes in to their meeting – whether they are wealthy and well dressed, or if they are in dirty clothes and smell – to treat each person with the same dignity); and if your faith is not beginning to give you a greater compassion for people who are in need, then you really need to question whether you have actually received the word of truth.

3.       Mark of true religion is that you will be growing in holiness.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: .. to keep oneself unstained by the world’ (v27)

Earlier in our passage we are told, ‘Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’ (v21)

It does not mean that we become holier than thou. It means that we become more like Jesus Christ.

He was very much part of the world. He had a profession, he was a Rabbi. He taught in the synagogues. Large crowds came to hear him. He went to parties put on by the sort of people who the religious leaders despised. But he did not live by the values of the world – he was different: he was not into status or possessions. He did not use his power for his own purposes, and he did not try to seize political power. Instead he lived for God. He preached the rule and kingdom of God. He prayed for people and they were healed or set free from demons. And he was willing to die so that people could share in, could experience, the relationship that he had with his Father in heaven.

And we are called to become like him. We are to let go of the pride that leads to anger, the filth aht defile us and the lusts that deafen us to the Word of God.

So how?
As I said at the beginning, if these are the three marks of true religion, I fail and I fail pretty spectacularly on all counts

How can I bridle my tongue?
How can I become more compassionate; because if I start to care for orphans and widows and people in need in my own strength, I will simply burn out? I know because I have tried, even as someone who claimed to believe in Jesus. And I did burn out.
How can I keep myself unstained from the world?

We need to be hearers of the Word.
Yes, James is about works that follow faith. But it begins with faith. This is chapter 1 of his book.

It begins with asking for wisdom (v5), with receiving new birth through the Word of God (v18), with humbly listening and taking in that Word (v21).
It begins with receiving the love of God, the forgiveness that God offers and with asking God for his Holy Spirit. That is what happens today at communion: we come to offer nothing. We come to receive.

The Word is like a mirror (v22): a mirror that shows us as we are, with all our failures and weakness, with our desperate state without God and our need for God. But it is also a mirror which shows us how and what we can become. It shows us forgiven, beloved and accepted. It shows us holy and radiant, set free from sin. This is the mirror of liberty (v25)

And the Word is like an embedded seed implanted into our hearts (v21). If we receive it and persevere then it will grow in us. CS Lewis describes it as a good infection, that gradually overwhelms our body and soul. It will transform us, from the inside out. And it will slowly, and over time, transform us into radiant plants that bear beautiful fruit, which give us a glimpse of what the future creation will look like; and it will transform us so that we, with the radiance of the glory of God, will bring glory to our God.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

How do we stand firm when the evil day comes?

Ephesians 6.10-20

We come to these final verses in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He wrote this about 30 or 40 years after Jesus died and rose from the dead.

There is so much here.

William Gurnell was a vicar in Suffolk in the UK. He was pastor of a church not far from where I was vicar. In 1655 – just a year or two before me - he published a book about these verses. Well that is not quite true: he published three books about these verses, with 261 chapters and 1472 pages. But don’t worry, I will be briefer. Slightly briefer!

How do we stand firm when the ‘evil day’ (v13) comes?

How do we stand firm in our faith in Christ when we face those tragedies and disasters that life can and does throw at us?

We watched ‘The Theory of Everything’ last week. It tells the story of Stephen Hawkins, a young man with a brilliant mind. In the film he has a fall, is taken to hospital and is diagnosed with Motor Neurons Disease. In one moment, his life – his hopes, his assumptions, his future – is blown open. He was not a Christian, he was a fairly strident atheist for much of his life, and maybe that reinforced his non-belief in God. But things like that happen to Christians as well as non-Christians, and do we stand firm in our faith when we face one of the most terrifying death sentences that anyone can be given.

And how do we stand firm in our faith in Christ in the face of severe opposition or even persecution? Paul speaks of himself as ‘an ambassador for Christ in chains’ (v20). He knew about that. He has been falsely accused, spent several years in prison without having been charged specifically with anything, and is now probably in Rome awaiting trial on a capital charge.

But in this letter he urges the Christians in Ephesus, and he urges us to stand firm.
‘to stand against the wiles of the devil’ (v10)
‘to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm’ (v13)
And in v14, ‘Stand therefore’

So how do we stand firm?

1.      We need to know our enemy

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (v12)

The enemy that we face are not the political authorities, or rulers – even when they are opposed to Christ, or people – even those most hostile, aggressive or evil. We are not fighting blind fate. We fight against an unseen enemy: ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’.

We fight against Satan, the devil, the one who in his pride set himself up as god.

He is the tempter, the one who would make us question, doubt, the goodness of God, the purpose of God in order to draw us away from the love of God. When he speaks to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden he asks, ‘Did God say ..’? He suggests that God is a spoil sport. And he offers Adam and Eve the opportunity to become like God.

He is described as ‘the god of this world’ (2 Cor 4.4). He tells us that all that matters is this world. He blinds us to God and to that world.
When Satan came to tempt Jesus, it was all about him urging Jesus to use his power to take hold of satisfaction, glory and power here and now.

He is the destroyer. He hates God and everything that God has made. And he wants to destroy it.
We’re told in the bible about a man who was possessed by demons. He lived in a graveyard, and he was violent against others and himself. And when Jesus drove the demons out of him into pigs, the pigs went into self-destruct mode.
And don’t think of Satan as some rather cute child dressed in red with little horns. He wants to destroy everything that is good and true and beautiful.
He destroys relationships, he uses us to destroy others, he compels us to destroy ourselves. Sometimes he does it in spectacular ways. But more often he does it in ways that are gradual, but just as deadly. In our pride and self-centredness and anger and fear we cut ourselves off from other people, we shrink into ourselves and we become nothing.  

So when the day of evil comes, know your enemy. It isn’t the person who is tempting or persecuting you. It isn’t the incompetent doctor or inadequate health system. It isn’t the political or business apparatchik who is carrying out their superiors’ orders. It isn’t even the person who gave the order. They have been deceived, blinded by the god of this world.

2.      Put on the armour that God provides

We are to stand firm not in our own strength, but in God’s strength.
We are to put on the armour that God provides

It is very easy to be seduced into thinking that we need to put our trust in buildings, political power or wealth or fame or education or technology, in gifted or well-known individuals or even in religious rituals. But actually we need to put our trust in God, to take the armour that he gives us, to strap it on, and to live for him

We put on the belt of truth.
The belt for the Roman soldier was not something that was put over the armour, but under. It gathered the tunic together and was what held the sword. ‘You buckle it on and it gives you a sense of hidden strength and confidence’.
And the belt of truth could refer to the truth about God – the revelation of God in Jesus and in the scriptures. We buckle ourselves with the truth. That is how the early commentators understood it.

But probably it refers more to truth as integrity, sincerity in heart. Truth in the inward being.
John Stott writes about this passage, ‘The Christian must at all costs be honest and truthful. To be deceitful, to lapse into hypocrisy, to resort to intrigue and scheming, this is to play the devil’s game, and we shall not be able to beat him at his own game’. He is described as ‘the father of lies’. Stott continues, ‘What he abominates is transparent truth. He loves darkness; light causes him to fear. For spiritual as for mental health, honesty about oneself if indispensable’.

We dress ourselves in the breastplate of righteousness
The breastplate covered the front and the back and was the major piece of armour protecting all the vital organs.
Again, it can speak of two things: it speaks of being right.
We stand firm in the gift of the righteousness of God. We have been justified by faith in Jesus. We have been forgiven. We stand before God accepted and not condemned. We have been brought into God’s family as his adopted children. We are right, even though we are dreadfully wrong! And so when your conscience whispers to you that you are not fit or worthy to be a Christian, that God would never forgive you, let alone love you – well tap your chest and remind yourself that you have been given a breastplate of righteousness. Some Christians cross themselves. That is great if it is not just a ritual. It is Jesus’ breastplate. It bears the image of the one who made it, who crafted it so that it fits you perfectly. And when you put your trust in Jesus, you received this gift, you put it on, and you became right.

But the breastplate of righteousness also speaks of doing right.
We stand firm, we fight against the spiritual forces of evil, by doing what is right. So, for instance, Paul speaks of ‘the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left’ (2 Cor 6.7); or Peter writes, ‘For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish’ (1 Peter 2.15)

We put on the gospel boots
Literally the Greek says, ‘As shoes for your feet put on the ‘etoimasia’ of the gospel of peace’. Etoimasia could mean equipment or readiness. I think that equipment makes more sense in the context of this passage.
We are to stand firm, with our feet rooted in the boots of the gospel of peace.
How do I stand ‘on that evil day’?
I stand on the assurance that Jesus has brought peace. That I am at peace with God. That I have nothing to prove, nothing to merit. I simply rest in what he has done for me. And also that in Jesus I am one with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  
But more than that. Peace is also a gift that God gives to the believer through his Holy Spirit. It is the peace that we can experience. It is a peace which does pass understanding. And when the crises swirl around us, we stand firm in this peace.

We take up the shield of faith
Faith – that childlike trust in Jesus. Again, Stott writes, ‘For faith lays hold of the promises of God in times of doubt and depression, and faith lays hold of the power of God in times of temptation’.
So, when the darts come – the temptations, the doubts, the lusts and the fears – I turn to him, I cry out to him, I throw myself on him and his power.

We put on the helmet of salvation
We take this helmet, the assurance of future and final salvation, not only for us but for all of creation – and we place it on our head.
We have already received salvation: forgiveness, peace, the Holy Spirit, freedom from Satan’s bondage, the tokens of his presence in communion and baptism, a new identity as children of God in the family of God, a  new purpose and a new destiny.
But we have a confident expectation of full salvation on the last day – when we will share in Christ’s resurrection glory, in his likeness and when all of creation will become what it was made to be.

And finally, we take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was challenged he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was on trial he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was dying in agony he quoted a verse from the bible

Don’t be ashamed of the bible.
Of course, non-believers in our culture don’t accept the authority of the bible in the same way that they did in Jesus time. So you cannot use it as an authority with them.  
But just because people do not accept its authority or power, does not mean that it does not have authority or power. It means that they have been blinded. And it means that when the Holy Spirit is at work in them, they will hear those words, and those words will come into them and transform them.

And ‘the forces of evil in the heavenly places’ really do know the authority and the power of the bible

So I urge you, get to know your bible. Read it, learn the story of the bible as well as the stories of the bible, study it on your own and together with others, learn the promises and the warnings and the encouragements and the challenges. Fight with those bits that you don’t understand or find difficult or don’t even like. One person comes to see me and brings with him a whole series of questions from a passage that he has read during the week – and together we try to understand what is going on, what is God saying.
And then, when the ‘evil day’ comes, use scripture. Use it as a sword to challenge the lies.

We know our enemy
We put on the armour of God

3.      We pray for each other – for all the saints

Forgive me. I could say so much more here. But I will keep this brief.

Prayer is the living out of our faith and the expression of our dependence, our trust on God.
It is the way that we put on the armour and live each of the pieces:

We pray at all times, and with all kinds of prayer – with praise, thanksgiving, confession and supplication. We are attentive and alert. And we use words and tongues and music and meditation.

And we are to pray particularly for those who are facing the evil day: whether that is because of persecution or fierce temptation or disaster (we think of our brothers and sisters in Kerala).

That is why Paul urges the Christians in Ephesus to pray for him. He is facing ‘the evil day’ as he sits in prison. Maybe he thinks ahead to his trial, and he is gripped with fear. So he asks them to pray not that he will be released, not that he will be kept safe, but that he will remain faithful to Jesus. That he will know what to say and that he will have the courage to speak it.

Of course, we pray that we will be spared, but the reality is that each one of us, each of us, will face the evil day.
The prayer ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ is not a prayer that we will never face temptation. Rather it is a prayer that we will never face a temptation that is too big for us (which is what God has promised), and that we will not be overwhelmed by Satan, by the spiritual forces of evil.

And when that day comes, we have been given all that we need.

We know who our enemy is
We put on the armour of God
And we are part of a people. We pray – we pray for each other – we throw ourselves on the mercy and love of God.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

So that you may be filled with all the fullness of God

Ephesians 3.14-21

This passage includes one of the most astonishing verses in the Bible

I wonder whether you’ve been very thirsty. You have a drink of water and it leaves you wanting more. You drink another glass and another and another. And you end up so full of water that you basically become water. You don’t walk around, you slosh around.

Well this passage is astonishing because Paul says that we can be filled, saturated – not with water, but with all the fullness of God. That you will be so filled with God that you will be like God.

v19: ‘so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’.

In chapters 1 and 2 of Ephesians, Paul has been speaking about the blessings that we have when we are ‘in Christ’. We’ve thought about that in terms of pages in a book, in terms of being in a place (‘in St Andrew’s), and in terms of being bricks or stones built together into a building.

The big idea is that we are in this together.
That is the significant word in Ephesians.
In Christ we are inter-connected, dependent on each other and dependent on Jesus. I am part of him, you are part of him, and therefore we are part of each other. And more than that: we share in the identity of Jesus, we are where he is, we possess what he possesses, his death was our death, his resurrection will be our resurrection, his purpose or mission is our purpose and mission, and his destiny will be our destiny.  

But now, in these verses, Paul changes the picture.
Now he focusses on the fact that it is not we who are in Christ, but Christ, God, who comes and lives in us.  

I think it is easier for us to understand this picture.

I have here a bit of bounty (for those who don’t know what a bounty is – it chocolate wrapped round coconut). I love bounty. I eat it. It has come into me. It has become part of me. It will change me. There will be (and please, scientists do not shoot me down: I know this is a completely unscientific description of the process) a few bounty shaped cells in me!

Well so, by faith Christ says that he will come into us and live in us. And he will change us. He will fill us, and the more that we allow him to fill us, the more full of God we will become.

And that is what Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians.

He starts by saying, v14: ‘For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’.

A couple of things:
1.      I guess that he is reminding us that the thing that we think separates us (our name, whether a Rogers, Bykova, Kirk, Culbertson, Wamriew, Volkov, Li) actually is something that unites us. We do not just have a biological unity in that, if you go back far enough, we are all descended from one couple – but we have a God given unity. He has named each of us, and the Father of Jesus would be Father to all of us.

2.      When Paul prays, he says that he bows the knee before the Father. That is slightly unusual, because the usual Jewish posture for prayer was standing.  Why bow or kneel here? It is a mark of submission. I don’t know! Perhaps it is because he is praying such an amazing prayer. But I would suggest that in our own praying, we use different postures – prostration, kneeling, standing, raising hands (orant position) – and not just sitting.

And Paul prays for three things

1.      He prays that the Ephesian Christians will ‘be strengthened in their inner being with power through the Spirit’. (v16)

We are talking here about the power of God.

Paul has already spoken about this power earlier in this letter.
This is a power which is far greater than any power exercised by human authorities or demonic powers (1.21). It is far greater than any physical power, whether electromagnetic, gravitational or even nuclear.
This is the power which brought something from nothing, which created all things, and all powers, in the first place, and this is the power which bring things that are dead back to life. This power was at work when God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in heaven (1.19)

I used to think that this was a prayer that God would strengthen me with power so that I could work miracles, heal people with my prayers, transform political situations and convert people.

But over time I’ve come to realise that there is a problem when I ask for that sort of power. Of course, I long to see the kingdom of God, the rule of God, come in power. And I’ve seen it happen. But here the problem is the little word ‘me’. I wanted the power in myself and for myself.

Jesus had access to this divine, cosmic power. But at the beginning of his ministry, when he was tempted, the devil urges him to use this power in order to provide for himself, or to get people to trust in him and obey him. But Jesus demonstrates his real power when – even though he had been fasting for 40 days - he refuses to listen to Satan.

That is the sort of power that we are talking about here.

This is not the power that puts me over people.
This is not the power which compels other people to do what I want.
This is not the power that will make my life, or the lives of those I love, pain free.
This is not the power that makes everybody think I am wonderful.
This is not the power which means that others will kneel before me.  

No, this is the power which enables me to humble myself and kneel before others – even the people who despise and hate me.
This is the power which takes someone who was spiritually dead and which gives me life. It is the power which will equip me to serve the people who this world considers the most insignificant, to persevere in my obedience to Christ even when life is hard, frustrating or boring, to walk the way of the cross, to rejoice in sufferings, to make the painful decisions, to forgive another, to give all that I have, to be bold in speaking of Jesus, to be a servant of the gospel (3.7), to be the peace maker, to constantly repent and struggle with sin, to be renewed inwardly.

This is the power which takes a self-centred fearful individual and allows them to be built together with others, so that we become fellow citizens and members of the same household.
And this is the power which will one day, with Christ, raise this physical body, so that what is mortal will become immortal.

And Paul prays that we will be strengthened with this power through the Holy Spirit living in us.

2.      Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith. (v17)

He has prayed for our strength. Now he prays for our heart – the very centre of our being.

He prays that Christ will come and live in us – and be at our centre. That Christ will shape our emotions and feelings and will; that when we respond to a person or situation it will not just be our response, but his response.

Think of baptism by immersion as an illustration of this.
We usually use our little font and sprinkle water on the person being baptised. But I was told last week that we do have a blow-up pool that has been used for baptisms – and I saw a great photo of Simon baptising a Nigerian diplomat.

When someone is baptised by immersion, and goes under the water, it is a great illustration of how in baptism we die to ourselves, to our old nature, to the things we put our trust in, our achievements and success, the things we value, our culture, our sins and our right-ness.
Imagine a computer hard drive that is wiped clean.
But as we come up out of the water, so we are rebooted - but this time with Jesus.
And we come up alive to Jesus, to his life, his values, his purpose, his desires, his strength, his love.

Now it doesn’t matter how or when we were baptised.

What is important is that we have literally and symbolically in baptism died to ourselves and come alive to Christ.

The problem is that before we were baptised, before our hard drive was wiped clean, we made a back-up disk of our old life. And we keep on slipping the back-up of the old me into the computer. We live as if that is the true version of me. And we push Jesus out.

Paul is praying that Christ will live in our hearts by faith. Obviously, I can’t cut you open and find Jesus there. But if we put our trust in him, he will live in us. 

So Paul writes in Galatians 2.19f, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’.

So we pray that Christ will live in us, in our hearts, at the centre of our being.
We pray that he will help us get rid of that old back-up disk, and live as the rebooted model. That our desires will be his desires, our relationship with others – his relationship, and our intimacy with God the Father – his intimacy.

3.      Paul prays that we will understand .. the love of Christ, even though it is beyond understanding (v18)

Paul gets so carried away that the sentence is uncompleted.
‘I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height and depth’ … it doesn’t finish!

He wants us to comprehend the amazing depth and height of the love of Christ.

Paul wants us to know just how much God desires to have intimacy with you, that you should be part of him and that he should be part of you. He wants you to know God’s delight in you – in who he made you to be and who he would make you become.

People have talked about how the image of the cross is a picture of this:
The cross planted deep into the ground and reaching up to heaven.
The love of Christ cost Jesus everything, but his death on the cross unites earth and heaven.
The perfect human dies in perfect obedience.
God sacrifices his own heart for us.
And the cross brings peace between human beings and God.

And the crossbar reaching out to East and West.
The love of Christ unites men and women, from all places from all times.
He died for each of us. He died for all of us.
That is why it is only together with all the saints that we can comprehend this love.
I will glimpse a bit of it; you will glimpse a bit of it. Together we will glimpse more of it.

But as I said, Paul doesn’t quite finish that sentence – he is thinking of the love of Christ and gets caught up in another thought.

He doesn’t just want us to understand this love – with our head. He doesn’t just want us to say ‘wow, it is so amazing!’

He wants the Ephesian Christians to know this love – to experience, encounter this love.

Many people speak of how they can begin to understand the love of God with their head, but that they long to experience the love of God in their heart. To move 12 inches from a head knowledge that says, ‘I am told that Jesus loves me’ to a heart knowledge that says ‘I know that Jesus loves me’.

That is what Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians, and it is what we can pray for each other. And it does happen. Sometimes dramatically, and sometimes very gradually. We become aware that God loves us.

And it is as we begin to know the love of God – even though it is a love that is beyond human understanding, and even though it will take us all of eternity, and a bit extra, to fully know that love, so we will become love and so we will be saturated with the love of God, filled with all the fullness of God.

‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’

Saturday, 21 July 2018

A sermon on Ephesians 2.11-22: How Jesus brings us closer to others and to God

Ephesians 2.11-22

I love airports. Seriously, if I had not gone into full time Christian ministry I would have explored the possibility of working at an airport. There is a romance about them. And one of the things that make them so special is that they are places where people who are separated are reunited.

You get in the plane and even though you are far from your home or from those you love, you are brought close to them.

Our reading today is about how, ‘in Christ’, we are brought close. We are brought close to one another and we are brought close to God.

Last week I tried to explain the idea of being ‘in Christ’ by comparing it to a book. Christ is the book and we are placed, like separate pieces of paper, in the book.
Where Christ is, we are.
Christ is crucified, and we are crucified with him and in him.
Christ is risen, and in him we will be raised.
Christ is seated in heaven, and in him we are seated in heaven
Christ is on earth, and in him we are his body on earth

And to take the illustration a little further: It is the Holy Spirit who binds us together into the book. And we only mean something when we are in the book. On our own, as a torn out page, we are useless. And if we are torn out of the book, well then the book is missing something pretty important. Don’t you hate it when you are reading a book and discover that there are some pages that are missing.  

Or we thought of Christ like this building. We come from many different countries, but we are all gathered together in this building.

In Christ – we have been brought together

1.      In Christ we who were far from each other have been brought near to each other.

We’ve been made one people, one new humanity

There was a great division between Jew and Gentile. Jews despised Gentiles and Gentiles ridiculed Jews.

It was a significant division because the Jews were God’s chosen people.

God had said that he would be their God.
He gave them his promises: of a home, of a kingdom of joy and peace and abundance – where there would be no more sickness or death.
He gave them a purpose: they were to bring his blessings to other peoples, even if it meant that they would have to suffer.
And he gave them the promise of his presence. He warns them that it will not be easy. They will have to walk through fire and go through the waters. But he will be with them, he will guide them, he will comfort them and he will restore them.

And now, in Christ, we have been united with God’s people.

Paul, writing to the Gentiles says, ‘But now you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ’ (v13)

Their history becomes our history.
Jonathan Sacks writes that as Jews recall the story of how God rescued his people from Israel 4000 years ago, they say, ‘When we were slaves in Egypt .. when we came through the Red Sea’.
And as people who are now in Christ, the Old Testament becomes our story.
The Old Testament becomes also becomes our book - not by birth, but by adoption. 

And the promises that God gave to them become promises that are given to us.
Their future becomes our future, and our future is their future.

These verses in Ephesians 2 specifically apply to the division that exists between Jew and Gentile.
But they also can apply to all those other divisions which separate people from people.
Divisions of nationality, customs, diet, language, skin colour, class or education. I’m sure you can think of many more.

In Christ, those divisions have been broken down.

One of the most powerful communion services I have ever attended was in Bangalore. We were in a church. I was told, as I looked around, that here were people from every caste: Brahmins and Dalits (untouchables). And we all drank from the same cup.

In Christ we have a new permanent global, cosmic identity.
My first allegiance is now not to my nation or my tribe or even my family – important though those are. My first allegiance is to Christ.

That is why authoritarian states are always going to be suspicious of Christians – they cannot rely on their total loyalty

All our customs, all our achievements, all the things in which we put our pride or security are shown to be worth nothing. We come as sinners, who have nothing to offer.
Our position in Christ is not due to my keeping the law or observing the commandments – but on his death for me and you, on his forgiveness, on his overwhelming grace and love.

I am a sinner who has been saved by grace and brought into Christ.
You are a sinner who has been saved by grace and brought into Christ.
And we have been brought together in Christ.

Christ, in his death for you and me, has broken down the wall that stood between you and me.

This is a piece of the Berlin wall. That was a literal wall that separated people, a symbol of the division between East and West. And in 1989 it was smashed down.

In about AD33, when Jesus died on the cross, the wall that separated you from me was smashed down.
And we who were far off from each other have been brought together.
We are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints. We are members of the household of God.

In a few minutes time we will speak of the fact that Christ is our peace. In him, we have been brought together as one body. And we share the peace.

My prayer is that the peace which we share on Sunday will become the peace that we live, one with another, from Monday to Saturday.

2.      in Christ we who were far from God now have access to God.

We were not only far off from each other.
We were, especially those of us brought up as Gentiles, were far off from God.

At least the Jews knew about God.
They knew about his holiness. They knew about his law. They knew about how God was like fire – you do not mess with him.
Do you notice how often we miss out those passages in the Old Testament that speak of the wrath of God, or that show God acting in awesome and at times to us dreadful ways that we do not understand. But the writers of the Old Testament could not omit those passages. They knew who they were dealing with, and they knew that God was far bigger than their understanding.
And those Jews who understood about the holiness of God, realised that they were not good enough to come into his presence. They could only come through the sacrifice of another being. They knew about the presence of God, the love of God, but they also glimpsed a bit of the awesomeness, the otherness of God.

And we!
Well we have either fantasised God or rejected God.
We have fantasised him: we’ve made him into the god that we would like him to be. We’ve reduced him to the status of a doting grandparent, a tame pet, or a personal genii. We’ve certainly cut out of the Old Testament those bits that we don’t like.
And when that happens, the atheists are right. The god of our fantasy does not exist. He is a figment of our imagination. He is a comfort blanket.
And we do not have access to God, because we are blind to God.

And Paul says to both Jew and Gentile – to the Jew who was aware of the distance between God and themselves, and to the Gentile who fantasised about god and make him to be whoever he wanted him to be - Paul says to them that in Christ we both have access to the Father.

Those are amazing words.
To the person who is terrified of God, terrified of the God who is beyond understanding, terrified that they have messed up, that God hates them or against them – these are amazing words
And to the person who has ignored God, or fabricated their own little god – they are amazing words.
You can get to know the real God – not just as God, but as our heavenly Father.

We don’t need any sacrifice – because there is one who has sacrificed himself for us, once for all.
We don’t need priests in the Old Testament sense. We don’t need someone to stand in our place before God, on our behalf - because someone has already done that for us. Jesus.
And we don’t need mediators. We don’t need to pray to the saints or even to Mary in order to get God to hear us. We can go direct to the top.
We are in Jesus, we can go to Jesus. And together with Mary and with the saints, we pray in Jesus name.

Because we are in Christ, and he is the beloved one, who has always been and always will be in the presence of his Father, then if we are in him, then we are in the presence of the Father.

That is why we can pray Jesus’ prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven’.
That sums it up – our Father (intimacy) in heaven (the otherness of God).

That is why we can know intimacy with God.
Kallistos Ware speaks of how, as a child, he was struck by the story of the man who would go into church to sit or kneel to pray for hours. Someone said to him, ‘You must have a lot of sins to confess or a lot of things that you need to ask God for’. ‘Oh no’, said the man. ‘Well what do you do?’ He answered, ‘I sit and look at Him, and He looks at me’.

Most of the time the Christian life is about walking by faith and being obedient to God, when we can’t see him or feel him. But there are moments of intimacy and, even if you haven’t yet had them, if you are prepared to stop and become vulnerable before God, and give God the time, then they will come.

We have access to Father God. That is why, in Christ, in Jesus’ name, praying what Jesus would pray, we can bring our petitions and bequests before him; and we can be confident that even if he doesn’t answer our prayers as we would like - he still hears, and he will give us what is good and perfect for us.  

At Sheremetova airport, just where you have your bags checked after coming in on the aeroexpress, there is an Orthodox chapel. In view of what this passage is saying, that is quite appropriate. Airports are places where people from all nations are brought together. And the Church is just basically a very big airport. It is the place, in Christ, where we have been brought together. Brought together with each other, and brought together with our God.

v17: ‘so he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and to peace to those who were near; for through him both of us (Jew and Gentile) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.