Sunday, 18 June 2006

Political correctness

ACTS 10:23b-48

"I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men (and women) from every nation .."

It was an astonishing statement for Peter to make. All his life he had assumed that there was an unbridgeable chasm between Jew and Gentile (non Jew). All his life he had assumed that Gentiles could be touched by God, but could never be part of the people of God. All his life he had assumed that he could be contaminated by Gentiles, that he should not really associate with Gentiles and certainly not eat with Gentiles.

And now he had had a vision, which was then vindicated by the visit of the messengers from this Gentile, a man called Cornelius.

We must not underestimate the significance of the events of Acts 10. The church of God was put on a completely new direction. Up to this point, the first Christian missionaries - who were Jews - only preached to Jews. Now they preached to everyone. The gospel goes global; the gospel goes international.

The debate sounds slightly strange to our ears - but that is because we are children of this passage. We've been brought up in a 'politically correct' world. We've been brought up knowing that "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28)

But it is still taking us an awfully long time to work out the implications of Peter's statement: all human beings are of equal value to God and all human beings have an equal need for God. When it comes to the thing that really matters - our relationship with God - we are all the same.

And Western civil society today has taken on board this assumption - but it has done it in a strange way. It has accepted the Christian teaching that everyone is of equal value, but it has rejected God. And as a result society tells us to treat everyone equally, but it does not tell us why we should do so - or how we should do so.
And as a result we end up with political correctness.

It is not that the things that political correctness say are necessarily wrong, although it can confuse who a person is (that which is given) with what a person does (a chosen lifestyle). What we find difficult is the way that everything is turned into a code or a policy. Political correctness assumes that we will treat everyone equally simply because we are told to do so.

The problem is that political correctness does not take into account
1. The reason that we are equal
2. The fact that we are messed up - prejudice is deep within us
Ortberg writes, "Our fallenness makes us want to be a part of not just any group, but an exclusive group. By definition, every society includes people who connect, who belong to one another. Yet in every society there are people who are left out, who don't get chosen, whose invitations to dance get turned down, who get ignored and cold-shouldered and voted off the island. We exclude others because of pride or fear or ignorance or the desire to feel superior".
That was true for Peter. It took an awful lot for him to overcome his prejudice.

  • Divine vision – repeated three times

  • Coming of the Holy Spirit in a very tangible way

It is significant that Peter did not get begin to understand that he had to treat everyone equally because someone told him to do so. He got to that point because he met with the God who treats all people as equal.

And he had to continue to learn that lesson. Paul in Galatians writes how he has to rebuke Peter because Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles (15 years or so after the experience in Acts 10)

Political correctness is basically morality turned into a policy. It tells us to treat everyone as equal.
The Christian faith is different. The Christian faith gives us a reason why we should treat everyone as equal, and begins to enable us to do so.

The problem with political correctness is that it does not leave room for mess ups or mistakes. It is hard and unforgiving. It assumes that everyone should be decent, and all we need to do is to be told to be kind and compassionate and inclusive, and punished if we are not.

Many Christians are political correctness people: we think that morality, goodness can be taught and legislated for. We complain that the problem with society is that they don't teach Christianity in the schools - they don't teach people to show respect.

That is what religion is all about: telling people to be good.

But Peter comes with a message that is very different
Peter does not tell Cornelius to be good.

The message he brings is a message of peace (v37)
It is this message that brings peace between people and God, peace between people and people and peace to the individual person.

It is a peace that is based on the person of Jesus

Notice how Peter focuses in on Jesus

  1. He talks of Jesus, Lord of all (v36): Lord of Jew and Gentile. Lord of African and American and Asian and European. Lord of man and Lord of woman. Lord of old and Lord of young. What is it that unites us? There is one Lord, one final authority

  2. He talks of Jesus not as the one who went around teaching morality, but as the one anointed by God to show mercy: he does good, he heals and he releases (vv37-38)

  3. He talks of Jesus who was killed but who was raised from the dead (v40). It is interesting that he points out that the risen Jesus was not seen by everyone, but by specific witnesses. In other words, we are no different from Cornelius. He had to trust that Peter was speaking the truth about the resurrection, and we have to trust that Peter is speaking the truth about the resurrection.

  4. He talks of Jesus, the judge of all (v42): living and dead

And notice that the emphasis is not on the judgement, but on the fact that it is this Jesus who is to be the judge. Our final judge is not the government, the law, not the church or our family, not even ourselves and our conscience. The one before whom each one of us will stand is this Jesus.

That's the bit that the moralist part of us likes: we can point the finger at another person and say, "You're prejudiced - you will be judged". And then we realise that four fingers are pointing back at us.

And the key, the climax of Peter's sermon: "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name".

This Jesus offers forgiveness to all.

Forgiveness is the ultimate leveller. It is the glue that holds the people of God together. What is it that unites you and me? What is it that unites us here with a congregation worshipping in China? It is very simple. We are all messed up, and we have all turned to Jesus because we know we need to be forgiven.

It is as Peter talks of forgiveness that the Spirit comes

Maybe, as Cornelius heard the message of sins forgiven – he knew that this was the element that had been missing. He had lived a devout and good life, but deep down he knew that he did not come up to scratch
Or maybe God simply came. It was His way of showing that Cornelius had received forgiveness and was a child of God. Even before the sermon is finished the Holy Spirit is at work. They speak in tongues – which is what happened to the disciples on the first day of Pentecost. They praise God.

My deep desire is that as a church we will preach Jesus.
We will preach Jesus the one who is Lord of all, who shows mercy, who is alive, who is judge and who offers forgiveness.

I am not in the business of teaching morality. If you want a church which tells people to be good, then this is not the place for you. Yes, we preach that there is a judgement (most of us know that we are messed up), but we preach that HE is the judge and that HE offers forgiveness. All we need to do is to receive.

I'd like to finish with a story which Gordon MacDonald tells. ("The Centerpiece of the Gospel, "Preaching Today", Tape No. 137.)
"In the late 1800s, Charles Berry, an English preacher, became the pastor of the great Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. One day Berry described how earlier he had come to Jesus Christ.
There had been a time in Berry's early ministry when he preached a very thin gospel--really no gospel at all. As did the Corinthians, he looked upon Jesus as merely a noble teacher but not as a divine redeemer.
Late one night during his first pastorate, as he sat in his cozy study, there came a knock. He opened the door and found a typical Lancashire girl with a shawl over her head and clogs on her feet.
"Are you a minister?" she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on breathlessly. "You must come with me quickly. I want you to get my mother in."
Thinking it was a case of some drunken mother out in the streets, Berry said, "You must go and get a policeman."
"No," said the girl, "My mother is dying, and you must come and get her into heaven."
Berry got dressed and followed her for a mile and a half through lonely streets in the night. He knelt at the woman's side, and he began telling her how good and kind Jesus was and how he'd come to show us how to live.
Then the desperate woman cut him off. "Mister," she cried, "that's no use for the likes of me. I'm a sinner. I've lived my life. Can't you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me and save my poor soul?"
"I stood there in the presence of a dying woman," said Berry, "and I realized I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother's knee, to my cradle faith, and I told her the story of the Cross and of a Christ who is able to save to the uttermost." The tears began to run down the woman's cheeks.
"Now you're getting it," she said. "Now you're helping me."
Berry concluded the story by saying, "I got her in, and blessed be God, I got in myself."

Friday, 16 June 2006

On the occasion of the Queen's 80th birthday

Matthew 22:16-22

It is good to give thanks for our Queen

We give thanks for her role as a figurehead for our nation.
Throughout her reign of 54 years we have, as a nation, known relative stability and prosperity. And some of that sense of well-being is due to the fact that God has granted her a long reign and a long life. Throughout my life, and throughout the life of many people, we have only known one monarch. And psychologically, if nothing else, the fact that she is - is, in a very changing world, one of the constants of life.
We give thanks for her role as head of the commonwealth: it is widely recognised that the reason the commonwealth has been such an effective organisation is because of the work of the Queen
We give thanks for her as a person.
For her wisdom: perhaps we will never know the significance of her weekly meetings with successive prime ministers: but there are very few things that she hasn't seen and she hasn't done
For her sense of duty: She has shown total dedication to the work and role. She has never abandoned a responsibility. For instance, while there is so much tittle tattle about her in the media, she has kept her counsels to herself. She is the sort of person exemplified in the book of Proverbs
For her courage, especially in the face of trials.
She may be Queen, but she is also a person, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. And she has been through trials that so many people identify with: the break up of her children's marriages, the death of parents and sister and former daughter in law.  The difference is that for her, it has all been done in the public eye.
For her with-it-ness: many 80 year olds are fully with-it. But I also have to say that some are thinking of putting their feet up and saying, "Let life get on. But we'll take the slow route - we'll look back, rather than forward". She has - up to now - not chosen that option.
We particularly, as the Christian community, give thanks for her faith. She is 'supreme governor' of the Church of England, and it is a role that she takes with the greatest seriousness. She is someone who professes a living faith in Christ, and that faith is reflected in her life

It is good to be here to give thanks for our Queen

But it is also good to be reminded in our reading that there is a higher authority.

The religious leaders come to Jesus. They say, "Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are .."

Then comes the sting: "Tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?"

It was the burning topic of the day. It was taken for granted that Israel should be a theocracy: that is - ruled by God. In other words, the hopes and dreams of 1st century Jews was that Israel should have rulers who acknowledged the authority of the Old Testament, of the religious teachers and of the priests, and that there laws should be religious laws.
In their eyes, it was not right that Israel should be under occupation. It was not right that Israel should ruled by pagans. It was not right that people had to pay taxes to Caesar.
So if Jesus said, "Yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar", they had him: they would accuse him of selling out Israel - of being a Roman sympathiser.
But if Jesus said, "No, we should not pay taxes to Caesar", they had him. They could tell the Roman authorities, and Jesus would be arrested for inciting insurrection.

It is the same as if the war had been lost, and the Nazi's had occupied Britain. And someone asked a religious leader: "Is it right to pay taxes to the Nazi's?" If they said Yes, they could be accused of being a collaborator. If they said No, they would be arrested by the authorities.

Jesus answer is astonishing. It is not just clever - a verbal get out. He maintains his integrity, he teaches the way of God, and he is not swayed by who people are and what they think. But what he says is astonishingly radical.

When he says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's", he is actually separating the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. He is saying that they are two distinct things.

There is the Kingdom of this world: ruled by monarchs, presidents, elected officials, oligarchies and business leaders. The currency is money, status, and the sword. We toe the line because in the end it is in our interest to do so.  But this kingdom is temporary (we talk about temporal powers) and very very provisional.

And there is the Kingdom of God: ruled by Jesus Christ. The currency of this kingdom is love. We are obedient to God because he loves us and forgives us, because of what he has given us, because this King died for us. And we owe him our ultimate allegiance because this Kingdom is ultimate and eternal. It is to this king that every one of us will have to give account.

And it seems that in his answer, Jesus is doing two things

1. He seems to be implying that, in the end, it does not matter who is governing you. Yes, as Christians we are called to pray for rulers so that we might live Godly and quiet lives. Yes, of course, we long to see good and fair and just government. But in the end, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, it does not ultimately matter who rules us politically: whether a tyrant or an occupying force or a democratically elected government. Indeed it is significant that the Kingdom of God has often been seen to grow far quicker and with more power in places where there is oppressive government.

2. Jesus is changing the place where the Kingdom of God is worked out. It is not to be worked out in the nation or state; it is not to be brought in by power politics or by laws or by the sword. It is instead to be worked out in every human heart.

Each of us has to decide what belongs to Caesar and what (if anything) belongs to God.

Each one of us has to decide where our ultimate allegiance lies

So let me finish with four examples

1. In the film, Chariots of Fire. Harry Liddell is refusing to run on a Sunday. He is summoned to attend a committee of Olympic officials headed up by the King's brother. Liddell states, "Whatever the consequence, I have to put my God before my King. I will not run". Lord whoever-it-is responds with the glorious statement, "Huh, In my day, it used to be King before God".

2. The second example is Tony Blair, who got in enormous trouble a few months ago, for stating that the final judge of his actions would be God. It is a simple Christian truth.

3. St George. He was a senior officer in the army of the emperor Diocletian. In 303 Diocletian unleashed a furious persecution against Christians. George, although he was under an oath of obedience to the emperor, resigned his commission and went to the emperor and said, "What you are doing is wrong". That is why he was martyred. He put God before king.

And the final example: the final example is our Queen herself. Many of her Christmas speeches draw attention to her own personal faith. But I would like to quote from two.

In 2000 she said, "To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life."

And in 2002, she said: "I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God."

Sunday, 4 June 2006

The Holy Spirit

JOHN 16:5-15

Good to be together

You are a gathering of astonishing people with a remarkable range of gifts and passions.

And in many ways, this is when we are most church. It is good that we have services that are of different styles, and they can be most effective when we are reaching out to new people, but there is also a danger that we create me-centred religion: I choose the service that most suits me, that I feel most at ease in - and I am uncomfortable if things are different or if people worship in a different way.

But it is gatherings like this that remind us that the church of God is bigger than our own congregation, that we need each other, that we are actually part of one body, we are members one of another.

So it is not insignificant that it was while the first followers of Jesus "were all together in one place" (Acts 2:1), that the Holy Spirit came.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He comes from the Father and yet has always been with the Father and with the Son. The Holy Spirit can be described as the divine go-between: the one who brings Jesus to us, and the one who takes us to Jesus.

When the Holy Spirit comes, two things happen

1. There is external transformation: that is what we often focus on. People become believers, society is transformed, churches grow. In the Welsh revival, at the end of the 19th century, the police spent most of their time in choir rehearsal preparing for the next gathering because the crime rate dropped to virtually zero.

And when revival comes those places where people try to find themselves, or lose themselves, in drink or drugs will become places where community is discovered and built, where people can meet and be real and support and encourage and listen to and grow each other. And when revival comes, people will serve sacrificially, they will work at relationships (whether with parents or colleagues or children or husbands and wives), and they will show gentleness and mercy, and they will offer forgiveness, and they will keep their word, and they will open their homes and their lives to each other - even when it gets difficult - because they choose to do so out of love for and obedience to God.

In the past much of Christian morality was required by law. It is the Old Testament model. And so couples stayed together because they were told to, because the consequences of adultery or divorce were severe. People did not engage in homosexual activity because they could be imprisoned. People even had to go to church or else they could face fines or other penalties. I would not wish to go back to those days: where morality is required by law. I also do not think that it is the way of Jesus or of the New Testament. I would that we come to church, that we honour marriage and work through difficulties, that we live sexually chaste lives outside of marriage - because we choose to do so out of obedience to Christ.

But for that to happen, we need the second thing that happens when the Holy Spirit comes.

2.He brings internal transformation

And that is what our passage in John talks about:
The HS "will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement" (v8).  

The HS will show us where we have not believed in Jesus (v9)
We may say 'yes' to religion, to the 'trimmings' of Christianity, even to the label of Christianity - but in reality we say 'no' to Jesus

Jesus offers us life and love.

And yet, I forget Jesus when things are going well. The Psalmist writes, "When I felt secure, I said, 'I shall never be shaken'. (Ps 30:6). I am like the young man who is one of the computer whizzkids in one of the James Bond films. He cracks the code of the nuclear missile: and he stands up and declares, "I am invincible".
And when things are going OK we think that we don't need Jesus

And perhaps we need things to go pearshaped to remind us that are human, we need Jesus.

The Holy Spirit, when he comes, will show us - day by day - the different areas in our lives where we are saying 'no' to Jesus - where we do not seek Jesus or obey Jesus or trust Jesus: and that is true for our business, our family, our attitudes to others, how we handle our sexuality and sex life, our language, our possessions, our compulsions, obsessions and temptations.

And the HS will show us what righteousness is (v10).
When Jesus was on earth, people saw what righteousness was. They saw it in the person of Jesus: the Son of God who left the glory of heaven and came to earth and who went to the cross out of love for us. The smart word for it is incarnation: God becoming a human being.

Righteousness is when someone strips off the dinner jacket and puts on the boiler suit. It is when someone rolls up their sleeves and plunges their hand down into the filthy sewer in order to clean it: no, more than that, it is when they jump into it themselves.

Today we can't see the Son of God with rolled up sleeves - but the Spirit brings righteousness to us. He writes the law of God on our hearts: so that we begin to love self-sacrificially: to so identify ourselves with others that we weep when they weep, and rejoice when they rejoice.

And the HS shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned (v11)
The prince of this world offers us this world. Chantelle, one of the participants in the last celebrity Big Brother, said that as she turned up, people started to chant her name. And she said, "I felt like I'd come home. It was what I had always dreamed of. It felt right".
Celebrity is a heady drug. It is, along with power and wealth and the satisfaction of our desires, it is one of the prizes on the conveyor belt of the prince of this world. He does offer us heaven on earth

But he only offers it to us, so that he can use it to destroy us.

When the Holy Spirit comes, he shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned.
It is the cross of Jesus - which is the opposite of what the prince of this world offers - that is ultimate.
The cross shows us the values that really matter: love, self-sacrifice, obedience, generosity, mercy, holiness, forgiveness
The cross shows us the power that really matters: Jesus overcomes everything that the prince of this world offers him or throws at him: flattery, the will to power, the will to possession, the will to save oneself from pain or death.

If I start thinking that I am successful, that I have made it, that I am someone; if I start getting puffed up, I look to the cross. The cross is the measure of success.

The Spirit shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned.

So there is no point living for him, or believing his lies.
We can hold on to a world that is so much bigger than this visible world.
That is why obedience and abstinence and giving are such essential Christian disciplines in our world - they are a radical renunciation of the things that the prince of this world offers.
That is why, 1700 years ago, at a time when the church was starting to grow sleek and fat, under Constantine and later, many made the journey into the desert - renouncing the honours and the power and the wealth that was offered to them.
And yes, obedience and abstinence and giving are costly. They might mean that we can't afford that holiday or the new kitchen or car or garden shed; it might mean that we are celibate all our lives; it might mean that we work at a difficult marriage in order to bring love into it.

But the Spirit who comes to us and shows us sin, righteousness and judgement, also brings us the words of Jesus, the comfort of Jesus, the joy of Jesus and reveals the glory of Jesus to us and in us.

And we see through the cross to the resurrection, to that new world, that other world, the world that really matters: the world that - in Jesus - we can begin to glimpse and feel and taste now - that is here but is so much more than here.

I pray for the external transformation that the Spirit will bring to our society and to our world.

But for that to happen, we need to pray for the internal transformation, as we invite the Holy Spirit to come and work in our lives.

We invite him to come like wind: to blow through our lives. We invite him to come like water: to wash us and drown us in his life and love. We invite him to come like fire: to burn up all that is not pure, all that is rubbish in us - and to leave behind the gold.

On Wednesday I was at a meeting of pastors to pray for revival here in Bury St Edmunds. Jonathan Ford was speaking. And he reminded us of that part in The Magicians Nephew (CS Lewis) where Aslan - having created the animals - calls out their names. And those that heard his call and responded, came forward with great fear, and meekly allowed him to touch their nose with his. And in so doing, they received the greater gift: the gift of being speaking animals.

The Spirit is here. If we allow Him, He would take us to Jesus the Son of God. I don't think we will rub noses! But Jesus offers us love and life; he offers us intimacy with God, his Father and our Father. It is an intimacy that will transform our lives and transform the life of our society.