Friday, 20 June 2008


Romans 6.1-11

The language of baptism is odd. We don't really have parallels.

It is not simply about joining a club: although when a person is baptised they become a member of the church

It is more than that.

Probably a better way of looking at it is in terms of citizenship ceremony.

We have some friends who came here as asylum seekers from Azerbaijan. Last year A and N went through a citizenship ceremony. They pledged allegiance to the queen, said they would follow the laws of this nation, and they became British citizens. As far as the law is concerned, they ceased to be Azerbaijani, and they became British.

I guess it is what would happen if there was such a thing as an adoption ceremony. The person adopted ceases to belong legally to one family, and they become members of another family. They are placed in a new set of relationships. They even take on a new name.

Baptism is like that - but it is in fact - bigger than both of those. The language that is used in the baptism service is not the language of leaving one to join the other; the language that is used is the language of being immersed into something.

The reason that fonts are so large is because in the past babies would have been dunked right into the water - and in many churches today adults, when they choose to be baptised, are immersed under the water

It is the language of death and resurrection.

And in baptism we are not just joining the church. It is quite literally the ceremony by which we die to ourselves and come alive to Jesus.

It is the ceremony in which we are literally immersed into Jesus Christ. Notice the language: we have been baptised 'into' Jesus.

And that means three things.

1. We are baptised into Jesus death

If we are 'in Jesus', then it means that as he died on the cross, we died with him.

Our old self dies in baptism

"For we know that our old self was crucified in him" (v6)

When we are baptised our old self - the self with its ego and pride and fear and self-centred hopes and ambitions, and its self-reliance - dies. It dies with Jesus

I look at Jesus on the cross and I say, 'There is Jesus dying for me'. But because I have been baptised, because I have been united into Jesus, I can also look at Jesus dying on the cross and say: 'There is my old self dying on the cross'.

Baptism is much more than saying: 'I am going to be a good person - be environmentally friendly - not abuse kids or vulnerable elderly people - give to charity'.

It is more than saying: 'I am going to be a good Christian - come to church regularly - read my bible - say my prayers - tell others about Jesus'.

Baptism is saying: 'I'm a dead person. Dead to me - to my efforts to be a good person or a good Christian - to my independence from God - to my self-appointed standards, to my self-reliance and to my self-interests'

In baptism our old self dies with Jesus.

2. We are baptised into freedom

Paul writes in v6: '... anyone who has died has been set free from sin'.

I remember several years ago, one of our children saying: 'Daddy, there are two mes: there is a me that wants to do right, and there is a me that does wrong. And they have a fight'.

Most of us know that experience. We wish to do right. We do not wish to take things out on our family or friends or colleagues; we don't wish to be knotted up by unforgiveness or jealousy or ambition. We do not wish to be prevented from doing what is right and true, because of the fear of what others will think of us. It is a particularly British paranoia. We do not wish to browse through those websites. We do not wish to be grumpy old or young men or women, constantly moaning and complaining. We don't wish to be caught up in gossip or consumerism.

The problem is that we are. We are, the bible puts it, 'slaves to sin'. And when we do it, we hate it and we hate ourselves.

Well, says Paul, 'remember that when you were baptised - as a baby or an adult - it doesn't matter - the body ruled by sin was done away with. It died with Christ. So you actually have been set free from the power and the condemnation of sin.

The problem is that the old me is like a headless chicken. It is very very dead - but it is still running around, pretending to be alive.

Paul says, 'Count yourselves dead to sin'. If we wish, deep in here, to follow Jesus, to do what is right by God, but we feel the pull of the old self-centred, self-reliant life, we need to say to ourselves: 'Malcolm, A, I, remember. The old you is dead. It has no power over me. It has no future. I do not need to give in.'

The baptised person has, in fact, been set free from slavery to sin.

3. We are baptised into a hope

If we are united to Jesus in his death - then says Paul - v5: 'we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his'

This hope is both future and present.

It is future because it is about what happens after death. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so we will be raised from the dead on the last day.

We live in hope. Death is not the end. It is not just the hope of meeting again after death; it is the hope that what is good and right and true in this world is not destroyed or lost by death. It is the hope that in the end love and life win.

But this is also a present hope

My guess is that many of us here have been baptised but we are living as if we have not been baptised, as if we have not been immersed in Jesus' death, as if we are not dead to sin, as if we have no hope.

We're like the bag lady of Kensington, who had lived on the streets for many years. She used to get hungry and people bought her food. But when she died they discovered that she was worth millions of pounds. A few years earlier a distant relative had left her the money: but she was so used to life on the streets she couldn't handle it, so she remained on the streets. She went on living her old life.

We've been given so much in our baptism. We have been offered forgiveness, freedom, a hope, new life, eternal life. The problem is that we have chosen not to live it.

My prayer for I and for A is that they will grow up knowing what they have received and living it. That will in many ways depend on you the parents and godparents. It is as you live the life that they will see what it is all about.

And my prayer for each of us is that we will live our baptism

Maybe today is the opportunity for us to renew again our baptism commitment. For some, it will be a personal thing. For others it may need something formal. That is why we have confirmation or the reaffirmation of our baptism vows. We publicly say, "This was said by me or for me at my baptism. Now I am going to say it and live it."

The great thing about our baptism is that we can begin to live it now or we can begin again to live it now - whenever now is. I pray that for A and for I, and for some of us who are a little older, today will be the now that matters.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

"To us, for you"

We've been looking through Ephesians. It is one of Paul's most important letters because it brings us nearer to the heart of the man than probably any other letter.

In chapter 1, he blesses God for the blessings that have been given us in Jesus: chosen, redemption, forgiveness, a destiny and an inheritance, and the Holy Spirit. He prays for the Ephesian Christians that they might know this destiny and inheritance and power available to them.

In chapter 2 he declares that we were dead, but that God made us alive in Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. And he reminds the non-Jews: 'you were without hope and without God'. But Jesus Christ came, and in his body he took into himself Jew and non-Jew, and he created a new humanity, a new family - built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. And through him, we both have access to God.

It is all very reassuring for me. Paul is a pastor with two congregations: Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. They are different. They meet in different places. They use a different language. They worship in different ways. They are also dismissive of each other. In fact, in their heart of hearts they are not really sure that the other congregation is really Christian. The Jewish Christians are not really sure that the Gentile Christians are 'proper' Christians because they have not been circumcised and because they do not keep the law. The Gentile Christians are not really sure that the Jewish Christians are Christians because they are a legalistic, exclusivist bunch. And Paul - he is in the middle. He longs to see them come together, not for his sake, but because it is only when they come together that God's plan for earth and heaven will come to fulfilment.

v10 is fascinating: "so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places". It could mean through the preaching of the church, but I think it means that the being of the body of Christ, the church itself - including Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, old and new, traditional and modern, st peter st mary - is the ultimate expression of the wisdom of God.

And here in Chapter 3, Paul gets very personal. He is in prison. And he is writing to non-Jews, the Gentile believers - and he is saying to them: this stuff that I've been writing to you - this stuff about God creating a new humanity in Jesus, that it is for Jew and Gentile - that is why I am in prison. The Jews didn't like it. They rioted, they tried to lynch me - and because of that I am here.

But he goes on: I had to do it.

1. God revealed this to me (v3), and to the apostles and prophets (v5). It had to be by revelation because this is a new thing that God is doing.

He describes it as a mystery (v3), the mystery of Christ (v4), the mystery hidden for ages (v9). It is a mystery because it has been hidden. It is a mystery because it is not obvious. It is a mystery because we do not know how it works

But the mystery is this - and this is just one way that Paul summarises it - that the "Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise", through faith in the good news about Jesus Christ.

2. God called me to be a servant of this mystery.
I'm nobody - but for some reason known only to God - he called me to go to non Jews and to share with them the 'boundless riches of Christ' , and to make known to everyone (Jew and Gentile) the plan of God - to unite all things, all people, Jew and Gentile under Jesus.

And Paul finishes this section repeating what he has said earlier: through Jesus we all have access to God.

And Paul concludes in verse 13: "Don't get down because I am suffering - in prison. The reason I am suffering is because of God's calling to me. And that calling of God is your -Gentile - glory."

I long for men and women to be captured by the vision of this mystery.
To understand it with our minds, and to also understand it with our inner eyes.

1. It is the basis for authentic unity.

People try to build the house of unity on many foundations: civil rights and constitutions, law, education, technology, a political system - monarchy or democracy, tolerance, 'faith'. We don't need to knock them: the goal of what they are trying to achieve is profoundly right.

Our disagreement is in the way that unity is going to be achieved. The conviction of Paul is that true unity, which also preserves variety, is found when people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ and put their faith in him.

Of course, as the church we do not have the greatest of track records when we come to talk about unity. I am quite pleased that the early church was in just as big a mess as us.

It is all very well saying that in Jesus we find our unity, when we all disagree as to what it means in practice. But on this Ephesians is very helpful: the unity of the church is built upon the revelation to, and the foundation of, the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. Whatever else, our faith has to be true to the biblical revelation about Jesus. One of the answers to disunity in the church is clearer teaching.

2. It is the basis for self-sacrificial mission

There are four key words at the beginning of our passage: 'to me, for you'. (v2)
This revelation was made known 'to me, for you'

The thought is echoed twice
"I Paul a prisoner .. for you Gentiles" (v1)
"this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles .." (v8)

We need men and women of courage who have been captured by the message that all people can become fellow heirs with the people of God, members of the same body and sharers in the divine promise - through faith in Jesus Christ.

The reason that God reveals and that God calls is for the sake of other people. God never blesses a person in isolation from others. He blesses a person for the sake of others.

The reason that God has given us glimpses of understanding is not so that we can live a comfortable life in a little Christian ghetto blessing each other. It is so that we, at the right time and in the right way, 'with gentleness and respect' share with others the awesome mystery that in Jesus Christ there is access to God, forgiveness and new life, eternal life, for whoever comes to him. Even if it means we end up in prison accused of treachery.

This mystery has been given to us, not for us - but for others.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Doubly Mine

A story of Jo and his boat (based on Ephesians 2:1-10)

Young Jo loved making things and he was very good with his hands. He decided to make a sailing boat. He searched for the right piece of wood. He spent hours shaping and crafting it. He smoothed it down, painted it and polished it. He found a stick that would do for the mast, and spent hours getting it just right. He stitched some material into sails.

When he had finished he held in his arms a work of art. He was so proud of what he had made. He was so proud of his boat. He calls her 'My Jewel'

He takes his boat down to the local park, where there is a lake. He puts My Jewel on the water. She sails beautifully, just as she was made to sail.

But then a gust of wind catches her and blows her towards the other side. Jo runs round the lake, but just as he arrives, two older boys snatch My Jewel from the water and run off laughing.

Jo tries running after them, but it is no good. He returns home broken hearted.

About a month later, Jo is walking past the local junk shop. He looks in the window. There, among the broken tennis rackets and cars and old tools, he sees a boat - his boat. My Jewel is battered: her paint is scratched, her sail is torn, and she has a price tag, £30.

Jo walks into the shop. "That's my boat", he said, "I made it. But some boys stole it." The shopkeeper is having none of it. "I don't care who made it. I paid good money for that boat. You can have it for £30 and not a penny less".

Jo didn't have £30. He had £12.37. He asks his mum for some money, but she things are tight. There isn't anybody else, so Jo has to work to earn his £30.

Jo cleans the neighbours cars; he cuts their grass; he cleans their windows. And everyday he walks past Junkies, gazes at My Jewel and says, 'I made you. You're mine'.

It cost him a great deal. When his friends wished to meet up in town to go to the cinema, Jo had to say, "No". When he was offered a ticket to the match to see his beloved team, he said "No": someone had offered him a job cleaning their garden that afternoon. Every penny was saved.

Finally, the great day comes. Jo has his £30. After school, he runs into town and, out of breath, he goes into the shop. He puts the money down on the counter. He says to the shopkeeper, "You wanted £30. Here is £30. I've paid the price. The boat is mine." The shopkeeper takes the money and gives him the boat.

Jo walks out of Junkies holding My Jewel tightly in his arms. And as he walks home, he looks at her and he says, "You're mine and you're mine. You're twice mine. You're doubly mine. I made you and I bought you."

But this is not the end of the story. Indeed it is really only the beginning. My Jewel was not made to be thrown in a junk shop. She was not made to lie in a cupboard. She was made to sail. So although Jo has great plans for what he intends to do with her, just for now he does some emergency repairs and then he takes her to the lake. And Jo says to My Jewel, "I made you to sail. Now sail. But sail for me".

Giving to God (2)

LUKE 12:13-21

I begin with a reassurance: today is the last Sunday that we are talking explicitly about giving.

Our passage this week begins with a dispute about money, about a bequest.

But what is surprising is that Jesus refuses to take sides with the man who appeals to him, and in fact challenges him.

One of the things that I quickly learnt about my job is that sometimes people will come to me in my official role to ask me to support them in their dispute with another person. After a few disastrous sorties, I realised that you cannot do that.

And when we come to Jesus to enlist his support in a dispute, he will often challenge us to look further and to look deeper: to ask ourselves what is really going on.

And he does that here. He challenges the man to look at his motives. And he tells him the story of a fool.

The man in Jesus' story was a fool because he thought that life was about stuff.
Jesus says in verse 14, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”

The man in the story was not a fool because he was rich or because he had had a windfall. He was a fool because he had not realised what life is all about. He thought that life was about having stuff and getting stuff. He thought in terms of £’s and possessions.

Jesus in the next few verses says, ‘Life is more than food’ (v23). Life is about the Kingdom of God (v31). It is about living in the presence of God, under the rule of God, in the strength of God. It is about loving, serving and giving (v33). To gain your life you need to give it away.

And we are fools when we make money our God.

It is a spiritual principal that we become like our gods. If we worship the god of money, we become like money: cold, hard and calculating.

Tom Wright says, "Those who worship money increasingly define themselves in terms of it, and increasingly treat other people as creditors, debtors, partners or customers rather than as human beings.” I would add that if those of us in the church, or those in the charitable sector, make money our God, we end up simply treating people as potential donors or benefactors rather than as human beings.

So Jesus warns the man: don’t make money your God. Money is not what it is all about.

And the man in Jesus’ story forgot that. He thought that wealth, stuff could bring him happiness and security. But it didn’t. He forgot that he had to die. He forgot that he would have to stand before God to give an account of his life. He forgot he couldn’t take it with him.

The man in the story was a fool because he thought that life was about me – me – me

V21 tells us, ‘He stored up things for himself’

There is a problem when we live like that: getting things, keeping things for ourself.

There is a problem for us personally.
Could I invite you to hold out your hand. Imagine that you are holding the most beautiful jewel. Admire it. Show it to your neighbour. Now look at the jewel in their hands. It looks bigger and better than yours. Watch out. They want it. So close your hands and hold onto it tight. Really tight. Don’t let go.

Now could I ask you to let go, and to give them the jewel that is in your hand.
Do you not see. We were not made to hold on to something so tightly. It literally knots us up. We were made to wonder, and we were made to give.

There is a problem for society.
One of the school assemblies that I sometimes do begins with me asking who wants a £2 coin. Of course all the children respond. So I put it down on the ground and say, ‘If (and I stress the word, ‘If’) I said whoever gets it can have it’ what would happen?

We have so much, especially here in the West. And yet we want more, we want newer, we want better. We fight with others for resources. It is reflected in our attitude to Eastern European migrants. When they first came over we said, ‘Oh no. They’re here to get our benefits. They’re here to take our stuff from us’. Now that they are leaving, we say, ‘Oh no. Who will do all the lousy jobs?’

Yes, we give away, but only when we don’t want the thing for ourselves. We give away our loose change; we give away something when we have got better. We take our unwanted clothes or stuff to the charity shop. We send our unwanted and out of date computers and medical equipment to developing countries. And we think we are doing good.

We try to store up things for ourselves, and we are fools.

The man in the story was a fool because he was not rich towards God (v21)

He’d had a windfall. A good harvest. It could have been a bequest, or free shares, or a bonus. But he forgot God

He didn’t recognise any obligation toward other people or toward God.

As a Jew he was called to tithe: to give away one tenth of his crop. It was a recognition that everything comes from God and ultimately belongs to God.

It is God who has given us everything: this creation, planet and life. It is God who has given us our particular start in life, our birth in this land at this time, with our skills and opportunities. We did nothing that influenced when we were born where we were born.

We like this man in the story, even when there are financial difficulties, have so many blessings.

For the Jew, tithing was a legal requirement. It was part of the law. If you obeyed the law, if you gave a tithe, you would be saved.

For the Christian, who knows that we are saved by faith in Christ, tithing is not a law. We do not need to tithe to be saved. But if we have been saved, if the Spirit of God is at work in us, then the spirit of tithing will be in us. We will recognise that everything that we have comes from God and belongs to God; and we will tithe, or at least be seeking to work towards that target, and once we've reached it, we won't stop.

I am drawing to a close.

Jesus challenged this man who came to him to reassess what was the most important thing in his life. He urged him not to be eaten up by money, or the desire for money. He challenged him to be not someone who got, but someone who gave.

I am not asking anyone to put an extra pound in the collection plate today. I am asking each of us to review seriously what we give, so that we can give generously in a planned way. Some people use envelopes. The person to speak to is Robin. Many people use standing orders. There are standing orders at the back of the church.

I am asking us to review our giving in the light of what we have seen these last three weeks.

1. We must not be fools – people who, in our wealth, think that wealth buys happiness and security, and so forget God.

2. Giving is an expression of our love. And as Paul makes it clear in 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, as we give we are enriched. Not necessarily with financial blessings (someone once said, "If you tithe I can guarantee you one thing. You will be ten percent poorer"), but with ‘a harvest of righteousness’.

3. Our giving to the church and to the work of Christian mission is the thermometer of what God means to us (not the amount, but what it cost you to give what you did give).

A wealthy man came to a minister and said, “I wish to make a donation to the church of £50. Is that enough?” No doubt he wished for the minister to commend him. But this minister was very wise, and very courageous. He simply said: “Yes of course it is enough, if you think that £50 for you is a true reflection of your commitment to, your dependence on and your love for God”.

May I invite you to think of what you give, and to reflect: Is it a true reflection of my commitment to, my dependence on and my love for God? Is it a true reflection of what Father God and Jesus Christ mean to me?