Saturday, 16 June 2018

Being patient with yourself and others

Mark 4.26-32

We are looking at two stories which Jesus tells: both speak of seeds.

In the first, the farmer sows the seed, is expectant and patient, and then reaps the harvest.
And in the second a tiny seed grows into a huge tree in which birds find shelter.

What is this seed?
At the obvious level it is literal seed: this is something that farmers would understand.  Yes, they would say, that is how it is. We must wait for the seed to grow into grain. And we know the mustard seed. We know that the seed will grow into something huge, even though we are not sure how. 

But elsewhere in this chapter, and in other stories that Jesus tells, the seed is the word of God. It is the good news of Jesus. It is a message, a word of love, of promise, of warning. It is about forgiveness, about friendship with God, about the Kingdom and rule of God, about hope and peace and power. It is a word about Jesus, a word which blows apart our human reasoning.
And this word, like a seed planted in the soil, is planted in a person’s heart and mind, when they hear it and receive it. 

And in the first of the two stories Jesus tells, or at least this is my take on it, he is saying that the seed will bear fruit. The shoots will come, then the head and then the grain in the head. So, he is telling us, we need to be expectant. Like the farmer we should be looking for this growth. But we also need to be patient. This is going to take time, and we need to let God do his work.

That is important. 

In the past, certainly in the West, we rather assumed that there would not be such a big change when a person heard the word and received the message. For many of us who are older and were brought up in the West, the values that we were taught were those values which had been shaped by at least 1400 years of biblical tradition and church history in our country.  And we were taught to guard things like family values, respect for authority, faithfulness, truth, honesty, hard work, humility, patience, sobriety, generousity, self-denial, self-discipline, doing your duty and at least lip service to the idea that we need God and that we will one day come under the judgment of God.  Now please do not hear me saying that this was a golden age. It was not. People were blinded by prejudices, there was terrible abuse of power, and there was judgementalism and hypocrisy by the bucket load.  But what I am saying is that when a person received the gift of forgiveness, when they welcomed the Holy Spirit into their lives, the church did not expect them to live a particularly different life - rather it expected them to live the same sort of life that they had been living but now not in their own strength but in God’s strength, not to their own glory but to God’s glory.

But our societies today are very different. People have often been brought up in a culture that has very different values.  They may have grown up believing that God does not exist; that as far as morality goes, they are a little god, that there is no ultimate authority, and that anything goes so long as it does not obviously hurt another person.  Truth, or lack of truth, is only a means to an end.  And why wait when you can have it all now. It’s OK to take what you want provided it is legal or least you can get away with it.  They may have had several sexual partners of indiscriminate gender. They consider marriage to be an outdated institution dreamt up in a patriarchal society as a way of keeping your woman under control. And so when a person becomes a Christian, when they hear the word of God and receive it, yes - there will need to be very big changes of attitude and changes of behaviour. 

But I think that this parable warns us against impatience. We need to wait till the grain is formed in the head.  And we need to be patient with the other and, for that matter, we need to be patient with ourselves. One of the vicars who I worked for in inner city London used to say that he expected it took 7 years from the point of conversion till a person became a useful and reliable member of the church! Today he might say it that would be longer.

When a person becomes a Christian, when they have been baptised, or have suddenly realised what it means to live as a baptised person, they will not change overnight. They will not immediately become perfect.  The drunken binges, or the foul language or the addictions or the abuse of their and other’s bodies may well still happen - but by the grace of God you’ll just feel far more rubbish afterwards. I say by the grace of God, because that is not a bad sign. In fact it is evidence that the Holy Spirit is active in you. Before God came into your life you couldn’t care less; but now you are becoming painfully aware that what you are doing is in fact hurting many people, destroying yourself, corrupting society, and - worst of all - hurting the God who gave his life for you. 

But this story seems to me to be saying that we need to give the other person, and we need to give ourselves, time to change. We need to let the Holy Spirit do his amazing work. 

And this isn’t a cop out. The expectancy that you will change has to be there. There will be times when you do have to make certain deliberate decisions if you are to grow as believer. It might be the decision to tithe, or the decision to leave a certain group of people, or to commit yourself to a pattern and discipline of prayer. I know of one couple - and I wouldn’t advise this for everyone - who were living together, who both became Christians, and they felt that God was calling them to live apart in separate homes until they were married. In many ways it doesn’t matter what the specific act of costly obedience is - but it does matter that when we have heard the word of God, we obey - even if we then fail.

And the change will happen - God alone knows how. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. Things that we used to do lose their previous attraction. Other things become more attractive. Our desires will be transformed, and our behaviour will follow on.

I often tell the story that I heard about Kyle and Darren. I don’t know if it is true, but it makes the point. Kyle and Darren were the leaders of the two rival gangs in the local borstal, the prison for young offenders. There was a mission and both Kyle and Darren went along, with their gangs, for a laugh. But an amazing thing happened. On the last evening the evangelist made an appeal, and to everybody’s astonishment Darren got up and went forward. Kyle couldn’t believe his luck. He could taunt his opponent mercilessly. When they next met he went up to Darren and said, ‘’So Darren you’ve become a Christian. I always knew you were pathetic. So you’re a changed man now are you?”. Everybody stepped back because that was the sort of challenge that would have resulted in a serious fight. But this time Darren didn’t hit Kyle. Instead he said, ‘No, not changed, but changing’. Then he hit him. 

We need to give people time to change; and we need to give ourselves time to change. We need to be patient.
Be patient with others – bear with them, challenge them, encourage them, forgive them and go on forgiving them as they begin this life long walk with Jesus.
And be patient with yourself. You will to become perfect immediately, but - and forgive me for using a very environmentally unfriendly illustration - this is really eating elephant stuff. How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. Don’t decide to become a monk or a nun if you haven’t yet learned to have a regular daily time of prayer. 
Be patient, be gentle with others and yourself, but also be expectant that there will be change. Look for it. Expect it. 

And the second story: about the mustard seed. Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point. It was a standard illustration of the time. And people knew that it would grow into a huge bush.  
And again, Jesus is speaking about the power of the word.  The word about Jesus, proclaimed by a marginalised powerless church, becomes the great tree that is the Kingdom of God. It shelters many people - there are echoes of Ezekiel 40, and images of believers as birds in paradise (tiles with images of birds on the estate at Ismailova). 

But I suggest that in telling us this story, one of the things that Jesus is doing is giving hope to those of us who think that we are so small, who don’t think that we are changing, who are still struggling with the old way of life. He is saying, let God be God, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, and you will become a place of blessing for many people.

I think of Corey and Hayley, who we are saying goodbye to today. I’m sure God has still got many things that he wants to do in their lives, but I also see how - because they have been obedient to God and worked at Hinkson, at a fraction of what they could have got if they had taught elsewhere, and because others have been obedient in supporting them, they have been a great blessing to many. If they will forgive this illustration, many birds have made their nests in them!  And it is right that we should honour such people. I hasten to add that this is not in any way running down others who have come here as teachers in the usual way: we each need to be obedient to God in the calling he has given us.  And when that happens, we will grow to become like trees, which provide a home for many. 

It is significant that Jesus uses parables to talk about the seed of the word of God. People could hear the parables as interesting observations about current farming techniques. They could hear the parables as stories - Jesus was a great story teller. But if that is all that they heard them as, then they were like the rock on which the seed fell. It lay there and never put down roots. 
But the follower of Jesus realises that there was more to these stories. Just as Jesus explained everything to his disciples in private (v33-34), so we can come to Jesus and ask him to explain them to them. 

When you are reading a parable, or a passage of scripture, and you don’t understand it, or you find it difficult, talk to him. Ask him to help you understand. And use whatever he gives you: other Christians - those who have written about the passage. ‘Think about these things’, says Paul to Timothy, ‘and God will give you understanding’. 

We don’t exactly know how God changes us and transforms us into people who will bless many. It is a mystery! But we do know that the seed is the Word of God. And if we allow God to speak to us through his word, then in time, if we are patient and expectant, that seed will grow in us, and we will change, and we will become like Jesus. 

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Living the TRI-uNITY

Romans 8.12-17

This is at first sight, a strange passage for Trinity Sunday: it should really be a reading for Pentecost because it is about the Spirit – about being led by the Spirit.

But the Spirit cannot be separated from the Father or the Son.

For a start, the Spirit here is described as ‘the Spirit’, as the ‘Spirit of God’ (v14), and as the ‘Spirit of Christ’ (v9).

And we are told that the Spirit is the Spirit of adoption (v15):
If we are led by the Spirit, we are adopted into God’s family.

We are not, in our human fallen state, children of God – not children in that special way.
But when the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ, comes into our lives, when we receive the Spirit, we are born again – or ‘from above’ – by the Spirit.
And we become adopted children in the family of God.
And as people who have the Spirit, that means that we have all the privileges of being sons and daughters of God.

And now we’re beginning to speak about Trinity.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved but a relationship to be lived.

Western theology begins with the unity of God and then tries to work out how One can be Three at the same time.
We turn it into a logical, mathematical problem and try to solve it with Venn diagrams or three leafed clovers. And that is not particularly helpful.

Eastern theology – which is becoming more mainstream in the West – begins where the bible begins with: the three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And it asks how can they be one.
It begins with the TRI – and adds uNITY on.

The most well know illustration of this is Rublev’s utterly inspirational Trinity icon.

Popularised in Western literature by William Young in his book ‘The Shack’; used by someone with conservative theology like Tim Keller, in a brilliant chapter in his book: The Reason for God, called the Dance of God; and used and I think a bit abused by someone like Richard Rohr, ‘The Divine Dance’.

The point here is that we are not trying to define what is the nature, the essence that makes them one God, but we are looking at them as three persons who are in relationship with each other. And we are looking at that relationship.

So the Father is the source of life for the Son, and he loves the Son, and delights in the Son. At Jesus' baptism and transfiguration, the voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, my beloved in whom I delight’. And he will give the Son all things.

We’re obviously talking about a reality here that is bigger than language and our logic.

Because the Son is the Son of the Father, but there has never been a time when he was not the Son.
And the Son is the heir of the Father, even though there will never be a time when the Father is not.
But because the Father delights in the Son, he shares all that he has with the Son, and he seeks the glory of the Son. He wants everybody to know – the whole of creation – how utterly amazing and wonderful his Son is. 

And the Son loves the Father. Although he is eternally equal with the Father, when he becomes a human being he humbled himself and became obedient to the Father – so obedient that he was even prepared to be crucified. And the Son delights in the Father. Every word his Father speaks is a joy to him. And because they are so united, what he speaks and what he does is what the Father would speak and what the Father would do. You see, they have the same Spirit.

And because the Son delights in the Father, he seeks the glory of the Father. He wants everybody to know – the whole of creation – how utterly amazing and wonderful the Father is.

It is like two lovers: delighting in each other, declaring the praises of each other. And if we follow the human analogy it could appear quite exclusive.

But it is not just two – but three. And we have already spoken of the Spirit. He comes from the Father but is also in the Son. And he is sent to us by the Son. And the Spirit loves the Father and the Spirit loves the Son, and the Spirit longs to draw people to the Son.

So what we have here (and again forgive me for well oversimplifying this) is a hug – three persons in close communion – who have always been there and who will always be there, delighting in each other, seeking the glory of the other. 
And as we look at that hug, is that three or is that one?

But this is also an open hug. Because, and I’m finally getting back to our passage(!), the Spirit, who comes from the Father but is sent by the Son of God (who is now in glory), comes to us and invites each one of us to join the Son in the embrace of his Father.

And what that means is that if we are led by the Spirit, if the Spirit of the Father and of Christ lives in us, we are now living here: in this relationship.

And that has some pretty big consequences for us here and now:

1.      We will be able to begin to live like the eternal Son of God, like Jesus.
‘So then brothers and sisters we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh .. [but to live according to the Spirit]’ (v12). It is not said but it is implied.
We will want to be obedient to the Father.
We will want to read his word, because these are the Father’s words.
We will want to come to Church to meet with God’s people, to share in this communion.
And we will want to draw others into this hug.

And because we are led by the Spirit, because the Spirit of Christ is in us, we are no longer to be controlled by slavery or fear.
'For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption' (v15)
We watched Bizet's Carmen last week. The seargant is infatuated by Carmen, enslaved by his desire for her and his fear of losing her; but Carmen also is driven, enslaved by forces that are far greater than her: the desire to be loved and the fear of being trapped. 
And we are enslaved by our desires and driven by our fears: lest our love is lost, our identity becomes meaningless, our freedom becomes imprisonment, our status becames shame and our comfort turns to pain. 
But in place of that we have a new way of living: where we find identity and freedom in our relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit: we discover that this is who I was made to be. 

And yes, because we are here – in this hug – and because, together with the Son, we delight in the Father and we long to see glory come to the Father (think of the prayer we pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’), we will be prepared to suffer for his sake (v17). And if we are not prepared to suffer for his sake, not prepared to put ourselves out for him, then it does mean that we need to question whether we are actually yet part of this hug.

2.      We have intimacy with the Father.

With Jesus, we can call God, ‘Abba’, which means ‘Dear Father’ (v15).

There is so much that could be said here!
But all that I will focus on here is to say that prayer is a discipline and a duty; 
it is something that we have to force ourselves to do – because the old self-reliant, god-rebelling nature is pretty deep rooted in us – but prayer can also be an utter delight and totally liberating. 
It is about ‘saying our prayers’, but it is also about relationship.
The Cure of Ars (whoever he was) tells the story of the old man who used to sit for hours in church. They asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’m saying my prayers’. And they said to him, ‘You must have a lot to say because you are there for so long’. And he replied, ‘No. Most of the time He looks at me and I look at Him’.
I do hope that you do put aside time regularly, daily, to pray. That is a discipline and, I guess, is part of the ‘suffering with him’. But I also pray that you have begun to discover a little bit of the intimacy of being in the Trinity, and of the delight of simply being with the Son together with the Father.

3.      We have an astonishing hope

‘… if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’ (v17)

All that belongs to the Father – that is all things: everything in creation, every gift, everything that is a blessing, every object and every person - he has given to his Son.
And as people who, through the Spirit, share in this hug, all things belong to us.
They are part of us just as we are part of them.
We’re responsible for them and for each other, just as the manager of a company is responsible to his board and shareholders for the management of the company. The word that is often used is that we are to be good stewards of creation.
So yes, all things belong to us.

The hug of Father, Son and Spirit is the eternal hug. It is bigger than death. 
If you are part of this hug then - unless you are like Enoch and Elijah - of course you will die physically, but you will never really die.  
That is why we are told that the meek will inherit the earth, that in the kingdom we will rule this creation together with Christ.

My brothers and sisters, in Christ, in the TRI-uNITY, we really do have a glorious calling, an intimate relationship and a wonderful destiny.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Holy Spirit: our language teacher

Holy Spirit is like a language teacher – a personal language tutor.

Those of you who are language teachers, or who have had language teachers, will know that they have several tasks.

They need to teach the skills of the language: the vocabulary and the grammar
But they also need to teach their students how to live in the new language: how to see things in a new way, and how to think in a new way.

If you start to live in a new language, you start to make different connections.
For instance, one of the things I have wondered about is the difference between a language like Russian, which has gender differences deeply rooted in its language, and a language like English that is principally a-gender. And that must have an impact on how we think.
Or it could be little connections that open up new ways of thinking for you.
For example: Belgrade is the capital of Serbia. To somebody who does not know the language, it is just the name of a city. To somebody who knows Russian or Serbian it means much more.
Or Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox thinker, writes a book based on the fact that ecть means both to eat and to be. We are what we eat?

When you learn a new language, you are not just learning a new skill. You are learning -  and I don’t think this is an overstatement – a new way of thinking and of living.

So the goal of the language teacher is not only to teach the skills of the language, but it is to be a companion, a guide to their student, even a friend of their student, so that the language becomes part of their student and so that they live in the language.

That seems to be a great picture of what Jesus is saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is.

The Holy Spirit is described in our passage as ‘the Paraklete’, literally the one who comes alongside us. In the KJV that is translated as comforter; in more recent translations, it is translated as advocate.

The Holy Spirit is like a heavenly language teacher.

And I don’t think that it is complete coincidence that when the Spirit came on that first Pentecost he came with ‘tongues’ of fire, and that he equipped the first Christians to speak in tongues, in the heavenly language.

Without Holy Spirit we are mono-cultural.
We can only speak and think in the language or the languages of this world.
But when Holy Spirit comes, we discover another language, another way of speaking, thinking and living – a new world.

Holy Spirit helps us to see Jesus in a new way

People who speak the language of this world will speak of Jesus as an Israeli peasant, good or as bad, as a moral example or as someone who was seriously deluded. They will speak of him as criminal or a tragic victim or as a model of someone who is prepared to die for a principal.

But Holy Spirit shows us a very different way to see Jesus.
Jesus in John 16.9 tells us that Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin .. ‘because they do not believe in me’.

When Holy Spirit comes alongside a person they begin to see Jesus not just as a human being, but as the eternal Son of God, the one who God the Father sent into this world. We will see him as God’s king and Gods’ ruler. We will begin to realise that to come to him and to put our trust in him is to receive life, and to be without him, to reject him, is to choose death.

We think of sin as doing naughty stuff. There is a great translation in the BCP where we pray that God will deliver us from ‘a superfluity of naughtiness’.
But Jesus definition of the root cause of sin, and therefore the Holy Spirit’s definition, is that sin is the refusal to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, refusal to come to him, to receive him or to put our trust in him.

On the day of Pentecost Peter stands up and preaches a sermon. He talks about Jesus. He ends his sermon by saying to the people of Jerusalem, ‘This Jesus, who you crucified, God has made ruler and king’. And the people are convicted. They cry out and they say, ‘We’ve rejected Jesus. What must we do to be saved?’

And they say that not because Peter has persuaded them, but because the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see Jesus in a completely new way.

And Holy Spirit, we are told, helps us to see the righteousness of God (v10)

In 1 John 2.29, John speaks of righteousness as right-ness, doing what is good.
Jesus taught righteousness. He lived righteousness. So while he was with his followers, they saw righteousness

But when he was gone, Holy Spirit puts Jesus’ righteousness in their minds and their hearts, in our minds and hearts: so that the man or woman who is open to God, in a right relationship with God, will desire to do what is good. She won’t do what is good because it is written down, a law she has to obey. She will want to do what is good because it is her deepest desire
St Augustine said famously, ‘Love God and do what you desire to do’.

And Holy Spirit, helps us to see judgement (v11)

It is when we look at Jesus, and at the cross, that we see most clearly the clash between the world view of our old human languages, and the new Holy Spirit language.

The old language, the old-world view, sees Jesus’ death on the cross as defeat. It is the world’s judgement on Jesus: for being a fraud and a failure

But Holy Spirit language sees Jesus’ death on the cross not as the world’s judgement on Jesus, but as God’s judgement on the world. Holy Spirit sees Jesus’ death on the cross as the final defeat of Satan, of death.
Satan did everything he could to stop Jesus going to the cross. He tried to kill him as an infant, to tempt him with wealth and power, to persuade him through friends, and to terrify him with the fear.
But with Jesus, obedience wins and love wins.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see the world in a new way

Holy Spirit is our teacher.
‘He will guide you into all truth … He will declare to you the things to come’ (v13)

The disciples can’t take it all in.
They’re in a bad place.
Jesus has spoken clearly of how he is going to be crucified. He has made it very clear that this meal that he is eating with them now is his last meal.
But, says Jesus, there will come a time, when Holy Spirit will teach you the things that you can’t understand now.

And we see that.
The death of Jesus overwhelms them.
We are told about two disciples who are walking to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion. They were broken people. They are so crushed that they don’t realise that the person walking with them on the road is Jesus, who has risen from the dead. They say to him, ‘We believed in Jesus, we had thought, we hoped .. but it all ended in tragedy.’
And Jesus comes alongside them and teaches them.

He teaches them that his life, the Christian life is not just about suffering. Nor is it just about glory. It is about suffering and glory.
And he opens their eyes, and they suddenly realise it is him.

Holy Spirit is our personal language teacher.

But he is also our friend, a presence with us, just like the risen Jesus walking beside those two disciples.

There are times when we will be conscious of that presence.
Some people have very dramatic, explosive encounters with Holy Spirit. Not everybody, and please don’t worry if you haven’t had such an encounter. He is still with you, if you have asked him to come into your life, and to fill you. And even as we eat the bread and drink the wine today we can invite him to come into us.

And for all of us there will be times when we are not conscious of him.

One of the Puritans describes it a bit like a father walking along with his child. For a long part of the journey they will be walking together – and maybe the child will be chattering away, and the Father will be quiet. And then suddenly the Father lifts the child up, embraces her, and then places her down again and they carry on walking.

But even if we do not feel him or sense him, by faith we believe that he is with us and he will teach us – as we read God’s word

Jesus says, ‘He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. all that the Father has is mine’ (v14-15)

With Holy Spirit alongside us, we see this world as ultimately belonging to Jesus. All things: whether music, creativity, natural laws, sex and sexuality, alcohol, plants and mountain rocks.
And Holy Spirit begins to teach us how to treat these things as things that belong to Jesus. We begin to learn to use them in obedience to his Word and we use them with great thanksgiving.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see all people as belonging to Jesus: rulers, enemies, friends, family, parents and children, colleagues, customers, clients, fellow worshippers.
And we begin to learn to relate to them as people who belong to Jesus, even as they were Jesus

I guess that is what happens at Holy Communion. We take bread and wine, very ordinary things, but we look at them with new eyes, with Holy Spirit eyes, and we see how they can be used for Jesus: to bring Jesus to us, and to join us together in communion.

So Holy Spirit comes alongside us as our language teacher, and as our friend.

It will be difficult. We’ve been told it will be.

There is a clash of languages and a clash of cultures, and each one of us will feel it deep within us. There will be times when we really struggle.

And we know that it will be rough, but we also know this: that Holy Spirit is with us. We are not on our own.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The blessing of giving

2 Corinthians 9.6-15

This is our final week looking at giving. Today we are looking at the blessing of giving.

When you give, there is great blessing

There is blessing for you as an individual
There is blessing for the church
There is blessing to God

There is blessing to you as an individual

9.6: ‘The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’.
9.8: ‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’
9.11: ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generousity’.

The Old Testament comes very close to saying that if you are generous, you will – in this life - receive back more than you give.

Proverbs 11.25: ‘A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.’
Proverbs 22.9: ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.’

Or when God speaks to the people through the prophet Malachi, he accuses them of stealing from him because they are not tithing. And he goes on and says, ‘Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.’ (Malachi 3.10)

And you hear people preaching that today. They urge their congregations: ‘If you want to be become rich and prosperous now then you need to give, and you need to give to this ministry here’.

I would love to be able to say that – both because I’d love you to give to the ministry here and because I’d love you to become rich and prosperous – but I cannot.

What I can say with 100% certainty is that the more you give, the poorer you will become!
If you give away 10% of your income you will be 10% poorer!

Jesus clarifies a bit of what the Old Testament is saying.

He doesn’t contradict it, but he challenges us to think where our values lie. And he doesn’t deny that if you give, you will become richer. He simply says it will not be here or now.  
Jesus was not wealthy. That is an understatement. He was homeless (‘he had nowhere to lay his head’), dependent on the giving of others or on little miracles (like when they caught a fish with a coin in its mouth), and he ended up naked, with the soldiers gambling for his only possession worth anything – his robe.
In fact, Jesus tells us that we are to let go of riches here in order to store up riches in heaven. It is a bit as if he is saying that everything you give away here is being added to your bank balance in heaven.

But the promise of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is that if you give, you will become richer here. You will become richer as a person.

If we step out in faith and give, and sacrificially give, we will discover that God is able to provide for our needs.
Verse 8 tells us that God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, ‘So that, by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work’

And v10 speaks of how, if we give, God will increase the harvest of your righteousness

It is when we take small steps of faith that we discover that God is able to provide for us.
Alison reminded me of when we were about to leave Russia in 1995. We had $500 left. It was all we had, although I was probably going to get a job as a vicar back in the UK, and we had immensely supportive parents. And a young woman who we knew from the Orthodox seminary where we lived (she was training to become a choir director) came to us the day before we left in great distress to say that her fiancée, who was a seminarian, was being threatened because of debts owed in the past. And if he didn’t pay by a certain date, they said that they would kill him. And I don’t know if we were being taken for a ride or not, but it seemed true. So we gave her the $500. We returned to the UK, and discovered a friend had written for us a £1000 cheque.
It may be only a coincidence, but it is the sort of coincidence that makes you put your trust even more in the God who provides for us, and it is the sort of coincidence that can only happen if we are prepared to take the step of faith and give in the first place.

I would love to be able to tell you that we have continued to live our lives like that – but it would be a lie. But what I do know is that when we live our lives like that, we become richer people.

v9 tells us, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. That is not describing God. It comes from Psalm 112, and it is describing the person who fears God:

Don’t you realise? If we have real life, we will be people who give life to others. The point of having money is to give money. Generousity is not the add on to life. It is written deep into the DNA of life.

That is why greed and corruption destroy.
They destroy a society, because nobody knows who they can really trust.
But more importantly, they destroy the individua: it is about how I can try to get and not to give. And the more I grab and the more I try and keep for myself, the bigger I may become in this world – with a bigger house, and a bigger yacht, and a bigger reputation, but my true self, my soul, shrivels up. ‘What does it do to someone’, says Jesus, ‘to gain the whole world, but to lose their soul’

God gives freely to us, so that we can freely give, and share in every good work.

It does not depend on how much money you have.

Mary Ann, a member of our congregation in Bury St Edmunds, spoke of a visit to some Christians in Uganda. Materially, the people who she visited had hardly anything. Yet she was overwhelmed by how generous they were to her. They opened their lives and their homes. They shared what they did have. And the thing that made the greatest impact on her, and the thing she brought back with her, was the fact, that despite having so little, they had such a strong faith in Jesus and such a joy in him.

We were not made to keep, but to give.
Where it really matters, your life will not be rated by how much you got, but by how much you kept back for yourself.

I am preaching this as much to you as to myself.

We do tithe. I hope most of you do, too, as Christian believers. That is the easy bit, once you have decided to do it. But it is about what I do with the remaining 90% that matters. This is the challenge to me. I’m very cautious with money. And yes we need to be wise; we need to invest for the future; we need to think about what will happen when we grow older.
But our money is a gift from God. It is to be used – and not just to make my own little nest more comfortable. It is to be used to bless people. And it is to be given.

And the more we give the bigger we become

There is blessing to the Church

We’ve already seen this principal at work. The Corinthian church have been collecting money for the church in Jerusalem that is suffering from famine. They meet ‘the needs of the saints’, and in turn the saints, the believers in Jerusalem, ‘long for you and pray for you’ (v14)

Of course, as believers we need to give to ‘every good work’.
But just as you have a special responsibility for members of your own family, so as members of the Church we have a special responsibility for members of the family of the Church
That is why it is good that we can give to Syrian and Coptic Christians in need. We can be a blessing to them, and they can be a blessing to us by praying for us.

But there is also blessing to the Church because giving enables the Church to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Paul speaks here of their obedience ‘to the confession of the gospel of Christ’ (v13)
And that is why it is vital that we do regularly and sacrificially give to the work of the church. Without that, the work of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, will become so much more difficult. We are seeing that in the UK. Churches are closing because people are not paying for the ministers or the ministry of the church.
It is not just in the UK. I heard last week that one of our nearby European chaplaincies is possibly going to lose its full-time minister, because it cannot be afforded.
And we’re there yet. Don is constantly having to struggle with the figures.

So when the people of God give – then the ministry can flourish, and the good news of the love of Jesus, of his victory over death, of the gift of his Holy Spirit, of friendship with God, of the hope of heaven can be proclaimed. The church can develop new ways of reaching out to people, and new ways of helping people grow in their faith. And we can develop new works of mercy.

When God’s people give, the Church of God is blessed.

There is blessing to God
Paul speaks of how the generousity of the Corinthians will bring ‘thanksgiving to God through us’ (v11), and that their gift will not only supply the needs of the saints, but also overflow with many thanksgivings to God (v12). And Paul finishes the chapter by declaring, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift’ (v15).

There are, in fact, multiple thanksgivings

We thank God for his provision.
There is thanksgiving when we receive a gift, whether someone has given R100, R1000 or R10000.

We thank God for his work in you that you have chosen to give.
We know what is important to a person by what they give to.
If you want a simple way to measure your spiritual temperature, think about what you have put in the offering bag today. Because what we usually put in the bag (not the amount, but what it really costs us -Jesus saw a poor woman put a R50 note in the collection, and he said she had given more than the people who put in many R1000 notes because she had given everything she had), but what we normally put in the bag is one of the indicators of what God means to us.
I remember challenging one of our members in Bury St Edmunds who was quite well off. He rather proudly told me that he was putting in 50p each week. I said, ‘Thank you. That is great. I am assuming that you are also telling me that God means less to you than half of the one of the newspapers that you read each day’.
So when people do sacrificially give, we do give thanks, because it means that God is working in their life, and that he is becoming more important to them.

We thank God because we have begun to realise that everything we have is gift

So I invite you to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.

The story is told of the man who stood up in church to share his testimony. He said, ‘I came to this country with £10, and the Lord told me to give it all away. So I gave it away, and he gave me £100. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and he gave me £10000. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and that is why I am standing in front of you today as a multi-millionaire.’ And a little old lady at the back of the church stood up and said, ‘Go on. I dare you’.

I dare you – and me – to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.
I dare you to give that it might be a blessing to you, so that you will become a richer person, a more generous person, a person who discovers that God provides.
I dare you to give to bless the church, the people of God, and to enable us all in the work of declaring the good news of Jesus.
And I dare you to give so that people will turn to God and give him thanksgiving – for you, for the reality of your faith, for all that he has given us, and for Jesus.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The integrity of Giving

2 Corinthians 8.16-24

We continue our theme on giving looking at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

The background is this: there is a serious famine in Jerusalem. The churches of Asia Minor and Macedonia, including the church in Corinth, have agreed to raise funds for famine relief.

In chapter 8.1-15, Paul has spoken about our motives for giving: that we give out of gratitude to God for what he has given us, and that is a response to the Lordship of Jesus. He is now into practicalities. He commends to the Corinthian church three people who will visit them in order to receive the gift and take it to Jerusalem. We need to remember that in the first century there were no notes, no cheques and certainly no bank transfers. If people were giving money, they were giving the hard and the heavy stuff!

So who are these three people?
There is Titus, Paul’s colleague and co-worker
There is ‘the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that but he has also been appointed by the churches to ravel with us while we are administering this generous undertaking’ (v18f). Some commentators think that this might be speaking of either Luke or Barnabas. But that is not really important.
And there is (v22), ‘our brother whom we have often tested and found eager in many matters’.

And in these verses Paul speaks about:

1.      The need for integrity in dealing with money

Paul writes, ‘For we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others’ (v21).
Paul is concerned that not only should he do what is right, but that he should be seen to be doing what is right. There is to be no hint of any scandal. When we come to money, this has to be Caesar’s wife stuff. She must not only be chaste, but she must be seen to be chaste.

For churches, this is particularly important. We need not only to be people of integrity, but to be seen as people of integrity.

Billy Graham died a few weeks ago. When he began his work as a small-time evangelist, he was dependent on many small gifts. But as the work grew, and the gifts grew, he realised that he needed some sort of system. He set up a business, paid everyone on the team – including himself – a fixed salary, and published his personal accounts each year.

In the UK and the US there is often pressure on politicians, and particularly on senior politicians, to publish their personal accounts. That pressure is often resisted.

But I wonder what it would look like if your personal accounts were published
-          where you got your money from
-          how you spent your money
How would it look if everybody could see where your money came from and how you spent it?

As believers we are called to the highest level of integrity when it comes to handling our money.

There are three questions that we need to ask.

1.      How did we get it: legally or illegally?

And even if we got it legally, did we get it because we exploited other people or took advantage of their weakness; did we get it because we destroyed something rather than created something. Or can we put our hand on our heart and say that how the money came to us was right.

2.      What do we do with it?

How do we spend our money? On what do we spend our money?

Do we pay our taxes?
Jesus speaks twice about the need to pay our taxes (Matthew 17.24ff, and Matthew 22.15ff), and Paul writes about paying our taxes in Romans 13.6-7.
It is part of the idea of the common good. Somebody has to pay for schools, police, hospitals, social security, defence. And if you or me don’t pay for it, then either those services cannot be provided or others will need to pay for them.

I understand that the introduction of the 13% flat rate of taxation in Russia was because people were not paying taxes. It was felt that if a simple low flat rate was brought in, people would pay/ But, for westerners (and in the UK we are used to a normal rate of 20% taxation and 40% for higher earners), it is low. For those who are wealthier, it is low.
And I would argue that those who are wealthier, or those who find themselves in a situation in which they cannot pay taxes, then those who are wealthier have a far greater responsibility to give over and above the 13% for the common good – whether that is supporting a hospital or a school or a place of worship or whatever.

And do we give?
Last week I spoke about the biblical guideline of tithing – giving away 10% of what we receive. I said it is only a guideline: some of us here should not be tithing; most of us probably should at least be tithing, and there will be some who should be handing on far more than a tithe.

But we need to remember that as Christians, as people who have given our lives to God, everything that we have belongs to him.

The story is told about the delivery man who never delivered anything. They went round to his flat and found it crammed full with TV’s, clothes and groceries. As they were taking him away, he said, ‘But why did they give me all these things if they didn’t want me to keep them’?

As believers we’re delivery men and women. We’ve been given everything that we have in order that we can then give it on.

A minister received a letter from a little girl in the congregation, in which were a few coins. She had written, ‘This is my thieving money’. It was alarming. Had the Sunday school started to send out the children Oliver Twist style to do a bit of pick pocketing in order to raise funds? But when he spoke to her, he realised that she has misspelt ‘tithing’. If we are not giving what we can afford, or even over and above what we can afford, then we are – like that delivery man – guilty of thieving.

A godly sister from a local ladies monastery was being taken up the drive of an oligarch. It was a vast estate, a tree lined avenue, and at the end a huge English style mansion. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘so this is what our Lord would have done if he had had some money’.

Think on it!

3.      And this is in fact probably the most important question:

This is the question that Jesus asks people time and time again. He urges them not to be controlled or slaves to money.
Next week we’ll look at Luke 12, where a person asks Jesus to arbitrate in a dispute about a will. Jesus says to him, (Luke 12:15) ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’.
And when Jesus tells someone to sell all that they have and come and follow him, it is not an invitation to a life of poverty, but an invitation to a life of freedom

We become like those objects that we worship. And if we worship money, if we make our God, then we will become like money: cold, hard and calculating.

Pray for us as a church that we will have integrity in dealing with money that has been given – that if we say something is something, it will be used for that.
And pray for yourself and for me – that we will treat the money that we have with integrity, not as our money, but as the Lord’s money.

2.      This collection, and those who administer it, are working for the glory of God.

v19: ‘While we are administering this generous undertaking for the glory of the Lord himself’
v23, ‘As for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of God’. Most commentators say ‘glory of God’ refers to the messengers and not, in this case, to the churches.)

This is quite an encouragement for me.

I’m British and fairly reserved, especially when it comes to asking people for money. I feel that it is a bit mucky and embarrassingAs a pastor I should be focussing on other things.
But it seems that Paul disagrees! He is saying that asking people to give to a God-cause, to something that is good and right and God honouring, and managing that money, is to the glory of God.

And what intrigues me is that one of the three people who have been sent by the churches to Corinth is well known as a preacher of the gospel, as an evangelist.
Why? Why send him?

Giving – if it is done for the right reason – is good news

If I tell you that you must give, you must tithe, because it is a law, and it will make God love you more, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I tell you that if you give you will become materially prosperous, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I try to get you to give by taking you on a guilt trip, because you are well off when others are starving, it is a false gospel.
(It reminds me of the argument that we sometimes tried to use with our children: ‘Eat your brussel sprouts, because there are starving children in the world who would love to have food’. It is using guilt to try and make your children eat everything up. It never worked! The usual response was, ‘Well they can have it!’)

But if I tell you that God loves you and that you can give nothing to make him love you more; and if I tell you that Jesus died on the cross so that you are completely and freely forgiven, and you need to give nothing in order to make him forgive you more; and if I tell you that God calls you – yes you – to know him personally, to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to receive his Spirit, and you receive that gift, then you will want to give. Giving is the signature of the Trinity. It is the signature of the believer. It will be giving as a response to his love. It will be an act of gratitude and an act of submission and trust, to the one who loves you.

I think of Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector who lived in Jericho and used his position to exploit people and take from them what he wanted. He heard that Jesus was coming to his home town, and he wanted to see Jesus. But so did everybody else and there was a crowd. As he tried to shove his way through, they wouldn’t let him. So he climbed a tree. And when Jesus walks past, he looks up into that tree and he looks up and says, ‘Zacchaeus, come down, because I’m going to stay at your house’.

The crowd are unhappy. What had Zacchaeus done to deserve that? He was a thief. He was unclean. He was a traitor. In the UK it would be like Jesus going to the home of a known paedophile who had made a lot of money by exploiting children on the web. But Jesus goes. He shows the love of God, even to a someone who had been a nasty, grubby, greedy little man. And no doubt he speaks of the love of God, of the welcome of God. And something happens. Zacchaeus could have rejected Jesus, and rejected the love of God, but instead he receives it and he commits himself to be a follower of Jesus. And we are told that as Jesus leaves, Zacchaeus takes his money and says, ‘Lord I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay him back four times’.

That is gospel, good news giving, and it is the sort of giving which brings glory to God.

So what about you?
Have you received the gospel, the good news of Jesus?
Have you heard of how much he loves you?
Have you, as a response, given your life to him – your relationships, hopes and fears, time, home and stuff to him?

Because when you do, you will realise that we are just the delivery man or woman. And you will want to be trustworthy and you will want to give; to give to society for the common good, to give to people in need, to give to the Church for the work of proclaiming the good news of God. And you will give: freely and abundantly.

And that will bring glory to God.