Friday, 23 November 2012

on Grace and Peace (after the vote on women bishops)

Revelation 1:4-8

'Grace and peace to you'.

I guess it is what we need in the Church in abundance after the events of this week.

Some of us will be very disappointed and wonder what the Church is playing at.
Others among us will be delighted that there is still a place for us, with our understanding about what the bible teaches about male headship, within the Church of England.

And we need grace because it will be just too easy in the next few months for positions to harden and for people to say foolish things.

I personally pray that we will very soon have women bishops but that there will still be a place in the church for those who hold to a more traditional understanding.

But I am grateful that today is the Sunday when we remember that Jesus Christ is the ruler of 'the kings of the earth', because it puts things in some sort of perspective.

And our first reading today begins with those words, 'Grace and peace to you'.

There are echoes here of the message of the angels at Jesus' birth: 'Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth among human beings' (Luke 2:14).

And in our passage, God gives to us grace and peace (vv4-5), and we respond by giving him praise and glory (v6).

Because it really does all begin with the grace and the peace that is given to us by God.

Creation Grace 
He has given us so much. At a general level he has given us life, love, friendship, light, our senses, our desires, beauty, music, this universe and our planet, food and drink and the many 'things' which fill our lives.

We did nothing to deserve any of those things - they are all a gift of God's grace.

God lavishes his grace on us. It is like custard on a jam roly-poly pudding. God gives us the pudding, and then he pours the custard on top of it. But he doesn't just give us a little bit of custard, a taste of custard. He pours it all over. He submerges it in custard.
Now you may not like jam roly-poly pudding. You may not like runny custard. But I trust you get the point. God is generous; he is gratuitously generous. We've done nothing to deserve it. It is sheer gift.

And the grace of God does not stop there.

Despite his astonishing generosity, we rejected God, we rebelled against him - and that is sin. 

Sin is when we delight in the things that God has given us, but forget God.

We are like the beloved who has been given a precious ring by our lover. We adore it. we treasure it. It is beautiful and incredibly valuable. We show others the ring. But in our obsession with the ring we forget the one who gave us the ring. We think how wonderful, how special, how beautiful we are because we are wearing the ring. And when others reminded us that the ring is a gift from our lover, we told them to be silent; and when the lover himself came to us - we crucified him.

We have crucified the Son of God, the one who was there in the beginning with the Father, the one through whom all things were created, the one who is the rightful ruler of all human authorities. I know we weren't personally there when he was crucified - but every time we take his gift and forget him or turn our back on him, every time we stop our ears to his voice, every time we try to live our life without reference to him or in dependence on him - we are joining with those who did crucify him.

And so we miss out on the most astonishing gift that God wishes to give us - not the ring, but his love and his friendship.

That is why when Jesus returns there will be mourning. It is a quote from Zechariah 12:10, and it speaks of the time when people will look on the one they have pierced and realise what they have done. On that day, we will understand what we have done, and we will weep.

Saving grace
But God could not leave it at that.

He loves us. That is why he died for us. He has freed us from our sins 'by his blood'.

Brennen Manning, the author and writer, tells of how he came by the name Brennen. As a young man he served in the war with a friend called Ray Brennen. On one occasion they were sitting together sharing chocolate, when a grenade was thrown into their trench. Ray turned to his friend, smiled and threw himself on the grenade. As a result Brennen survived. Later when he became a priest he had to choose the name of a saint to be his name, and because of his friend he chose the name Brennen. Many years later he was speaking to Ray's mother and asked her, 'Do you think Ray really loved me?' She got up, jabbed him with her finger and shouted, 'Of course he loved you. What more do you think he could have done for you?' Brennen said that moment was like an epiphany. He imagined him asking God, 'Did Jesus really love me?' And God stands up, jabs him with his finger and shouts, 'Of course he did. What more do you think he could have done for you?'

  • Because of Jesus' death for us we can be set free from sin - so that the controlling part of our brain which was God-dead, God-blind and God-deaf becomes God-alive.
  • Because of Jesus' death for us, we can live for him, we can begin to respond to his love. Of course we will stumble and let him down; but because of Jesus death there is forgiveness and we can always again turn to him.
  • And because of Jesus' death for us, he has given us a glorious destiny and purpose.

He has, we are told, made us a kingdom. I love that: he hasn't given us a kingdom - this is not talking about territory - but he has made all who trust him into a kingdom. 
Don't look for Jesus' kingdom in this town or in that country. 
Don't look for it in this or that church institution. 
Look for it in the hearts of men and women who have turned to Jesus, who seek to love him and serve him, and who seek to show his love first to their brothers and sisters in Christ, and then to the wider world.

And more than that: he has made us priests - all of us, men and women. You don't need one of these collars to be a priest in this sense. We each can stand in the presence of God; we each can speak to others in the name of Christ.
Luther said, "Not only are we the freest of kings, we are also priests forever, which is far more excellent than being kings, for as priests we are worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things."

And because of Jesus we are persuaded that death is not the end. Jesus not only died for us, but he was raised from the dead. He is the firstborn of the dead.

And there is another astonishing gift of God's grace that we are shown here.

Sovereign grace 
We struggle to understand what is going on. Our world, our church and our lives are messed up. Things do not make sense. 

I wonder if you can read this:
"The hmuan mnid is a wndoreullfy cpoemlx oargn. You see? It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aeappr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the human mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig isn't it?"

But when we know the beginning and the end, then we begin to realise that it can make sense.

Revelation 1:4-8 speak of God the Father as the beginning and the end. It speaks of him as the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is the one who was before all things, who created all things, and who will bring them all to the remarkable conclusion that he has for this world. 

And the book of Revelation also speaks of Jesus Christ as the beginning and the end, as the Alpha and the Omega. 

And so even though our world can be a dark and confusing place, and even though we have no idea what is going on, we do know the one who is the beginning and the end. And He is in control. 

So do not despair. 
Do not despair of yourself - if you have come to Jesus, he will sort you out. 
Do not despair for the Church of God - it really is his church: and individual churches will grow and decline, and denominations will come and go - but the Church, the people of Jesus Christ will grow.
Do not despair for this world - because Jesus Christ is the one who is ultimately in control, and it is his purposes which will ultimately triumph.  

It is when we understand the astonishing grace of God that we can live at peace with each other, even if we disagree on something as significant as what the bible teaches about the role of men and women. 

We realise that we have so much more in common: 
- the abundant goodness of God in creation; 
- his astonishing love for us shown in the death of Jesus
- his setting us free from sin
- his destiny for us as a kingdom and priests to serve him
- his raising of Jesus from the dead, as the firstborn of the dead
- his anointing of Jesus as the ruler of the kings of the earth
God, with his Son, is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end.

And so we can afford to be generous to those who disagree with us.
As believers in our Lord Jesus Christ we recognise that we are all forgiven sinners; that none of us has got it sussed; and that in the end the purposes of God will triumph.

It may not be obvious, at least here and now; but it will be obvious in the future: He will return, and every eye will see him. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

The victory of Love

1 Corinthians 13:8-13
(on the occasion of a parish memorial service)

Services like this are important but also painful:
They are painful because the very act of remembering brings back the fact that some of those we love are no longer with us;
But it is also very good to have the opportunity to name those who we love but who have died - because the world seems to forget very quickly, and moves on, and we want to shout out that we haven't been able to move on - and that they still really really matter.

At two recent funerals, people have asked for 1 Corinthians 13 to be read

It is quite an astonishing passage. It speaks of:
a) the priority of Love: that love is more precious than brilliant oratory, than all knowledge, than the most exceptional power, or will-power.

b) it describes the things that accompany Love: 'Love is patient and kind etc.

c) it talks - and this is what I would like to focus on - about the victory of Love.

Paul writes, 'Love never fails'.

He describes how knowledge and words will pass away: 'Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love'.

What the bible is saying is that - at the end of the day, at the very very end of the day when everything else has gone - there is one thing that will be left standing: Love.

And I hope that that comes as a comfort to you.

You see when we face the death of someone who we love, it really does seem to us that death has the final word.
Death destroys life; it rips away everyone and everything that is precious to us, that we treasure.
It may be, as it was for us when Alison's father died earlier this year, that death itself came as a great mercy. But it was the death principal, the principal of decay which we see all around us, which meant that when death itself brought the final coup, it was seen as a mercy.
And death takes from us the ones who give us a reason for getting up in the morning, who give us significance and meaning, who help us know who we are: 'I am a husband, a wife, a child, a parent, a friend, a brother or sister'.
And death seems so blind: it takes the very young and the very old. It takes the good and the bad, the clever and the foolish, the powerful and the weak. It takes some like that, and it refuses to come to others who long for it. And there really is no rhyme or reason.

And when someone who we have really loved dies, you don't need me to tell you, that we ourselves - in a different way - die.

But these verses tell us, that in the final analysis, Love wins.

It is an astonishing statement. It is a faith position. There is no way that I can prove it. The evidence of our eyes and the evidence of our weeping is that death wins.
But God here tells us that love wins.

And the reason that I can say this with any conviction is because 2000 years ago God became a human being. He lived in Palestine. He was a carpenter and a preacher.He spoke about a God who loves us, who delights in us and desires for us to be united and bound to him just as he will be bound to us. There is a recurring promise throughout the bible. God says, 'I will be their God and they will be my people'.
And it is like a hub, a network. As you are bound to God in love and you are bound to God in love and you are bound to God in love, so we are bound to each other, united with each other, in love.

And Jesus did not just speak about the love of God. He demonstrated the love of God. And he demonstrated that love is a stronger motivating force than death. Even though he did not wish to die, let alone die in the way that he was going to die, crucified with nails smashed through his hands and feet, he still went through with the cross. And even though death and the fear of death on the one hand was screaming at him, 'Don't do it'; love was telling him, 'Do it'. And by his death he broke through the barrier which separated us from God. As perfect man he lived the life of total obedience to God and of total love for others that we should have lived; as perfect God he took onto himself the punishment that our rebellion against God deserved.

Hebrews tells us that Jesus went through with his death on the cross, with the pain and the shame, 'for the joy that was set before him'.
What was that joy? It was not just the joy of the resurrection and exaltation. It was the joy of knowing that because he died, men and women could again be bound to him in love. He died for all that we might love him.

So Jesus spoke of a God who is love.
He demonstrated on the cross that the motivating power of love can be stronger than the motivating power of the fear of death
And by rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated that the power of love is infinitely more powerful than the power of death.
All death can do is destroy that which is.
Love brings life to that which is not.
And Jesus, on that first Easter morning, when he rose from the dead, smashed through the barrier, the gate of death

So how does this help us?
Well, at the moment - and this is particularly true when someone we have loved has died - we only see very dimly. It is like looking in a very old and stained mirror. Or it is like looking through heavily frosted glass. We struggle to even make out the broad brushstrokes.

But this is telling us that one day we will see clearly.

And on that day, when time and space as we know it are transformed, we will see that death does not have the final word.
And on that day, which we cannot really imagine, we will see his love for us as he beckons us, as he invites us to come to him, to be bound together to him and with him in sheer and utter joy.
And we will see his indescribable love for those who we have loved, as he beckons them - with outstretched hands which bear the scars of the nails - to also respond to his reckless, overwhelming love, and as he invites them to come to him.

So on this day when we name those whom we have loved but who are no longer with us, can I remind you of a very simple fact. Death does not have the last word. Death does not win. Love wins. The love of a God who would rather be crucified than live without us.
The God who loves us really is the last one standing.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday 2012: every person matters

Today we protest

Remembrance is an act of protest against the fact that war turns men and women into statistics.

A couple of years ago, after one of the major military funerals that we held here, someone wrote challenging me that I was complicit in glorifying war. I wrote back and said that I had no issue with conducting a significant military funeral: for two reasons. The first is political. When the death of a service man or woman on active duty is taken for granted, or is treated as usual, or as just another statistic, then rulers will find it very easy to go to war. But when those deaths are marked as significant, then force will be used only as the very last resort.

The second is more important: Luke Southgate and Adam Drane matter. They mattered to their families; they mattered to their friends and comrades; they mattered to their community. And there was nothing about glorifying war. It was about people coming together and saying that the death of these two young men needed to be marked, because they mattered.

War has always stripped human beings of their personality. In the early days the tribes painted their faces - so that they would terrify their enemies. It also made them faceless. Later they wore helmets which protected their face, but also made them faceless. In later years, men became statistics, like toy soldiers, with numbers not names, who could be ordered over the trenches in their hundreds, thousands, even millions. Today, with remote controlled IED's and computer operated drones, war can be even more faceless: a computer game, waged with the press of a button. You will never know who killed you, and you will never know who you have killed.

Today, Remembrance Sunday, we protest.
We say 'No'.
War may strip men and women of their faces; war may turn men and women into statistics, but today we say that a person can never become a statistic.

Last week I was looking at the back of church through the book of remembrance to the Suffolk's in WW1. It contains 9000 names? And then I thought, 'No it does not. It contains the name of Private Sargant, of Lt Corporal Ward of Private Ruffle.'

Today we choose to remember not war, not statistics, but individual men and women. We remember John, Harry and Philip; we remember comrades, friends, former school mates, children, husbands, wives or partners, parents.

And today we protest - because we say that you cannot turn a person into a number; you cannot strip a person of their face - because each individual person really does matter.

And there are two reasons why they matter

1.    They are an eternal being.

God, the bible says, has put eternity in our hearts.

It is a great passage.

It speaks of how God has made all things and that there is a right place for all things.

There is even a place, in this fallen broken world, for war. I would argue that if there is ever a time for war it is not when national self-interest is put at risk; it is not when a particular life-style is threatened. If there is a time for a war, it is when nations or rulers or peoples forget that very simple little principle - that people matter. It is said that the Mongol hordes, when they invaded Russia, locked their captives into a room, built a ceiling which rested on them, and then held a party. While they danced on the floor above, men, women and children were crushed below. If there is ever a case for war, it is when rulers or states or peoples behave like that. It is when they herd people into boxes, stamp the side of the box with a label (whether that label is black, white, pink or blue, Jew, Christian, Hindu or Moslem) and then crush it.

You see the passage talks of how God has made everything beautiful in its time: in its right place. It's not talking about physical beauty. It's talking about a beauty that lasts, an eternal beauty. And when a human being begins to realise and to live as if the next person really really matters, that person becomes beautiful and you become beautiful.

You see, God has put eternity in our hearts.
If we are born, live and then die, we don't really matter. We might matter to several other people, for as long as they remember us. But if we are just born, live and die - then we are simply part of a biological, physical process that has no purpose and no meaning. The only guiding hand is survival of the fittest. And if you get crushed in the process of life, well what of it? You are no more significant than an ant. You are obviously weaker and probably deserved to be crushed.
My usual answer to the person who says, "God cannot exist because of suffering” is, "OK, take God out. Because if there is no God, there is no why, no answer, no purpose, no reason. It just happens. Welcome to a very bleak, a very dark and a very hopeless universe". And quite frankly, Atilla the Hun can dance on as many people as he wishes. 

But we are here to protest. To say that it is not like that; to say that those we remember do matter, that they matter eternally.

Death in this fallen broken world has its place (the passage talks about how there is 'a time to be born and a time to die'). But death in God's eternal world has no place.

And so, as the passage says, we don't understand. We live with death and yet we long for eternity; we live – and it is an act of faith - as if we were eternal, we live as if each person matters.
Why? Because God has put eternity in our hearts.

2. They matter because God sent his Son to die for them.

Today we remember the many who have died for their country.
A few weeks ago we had the Battle of Britain service here: we remembered the few who died for the many.

As Christians, each Sunday, we remember the one who died for all. But Jesus did not die for some blob called humanity. He died for each individual person: for Adam and Luke, for John, Harry and Philip, for you and you and you and me.

The most famous verse in the Bible says, 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life'.

How much do those we remember matter?

A few weeks ago I watched as one of my sons walked away from the car to get on the coach to go on a school trip to China. It was only for a few days, but as I watched him walk away, I realized that he was becoming independent. And part of me was proud and part of my heart was broken.
When someone you really love dies, far more than a part of your heart breaks. You die, in a different way, with them.

And those we remember matter so much that the eternal God, who is beyond all understanding, would rather be crucified than live without them. And if you or I or they turn our backs on Him and refuse to know him, to live as a friend of God or to receive his love - it is more painful to Him than death by crucifixion.

That is how much they matter. That is how much you matter.

And because God has put eternity in our hearts; and because Jesus died for each one of us, we matter, we really really matter.

Of course, with this there comes a responsibility.
Because we matter, there is a day of judgement.
Because our thoughts, words and actions matter, there will be a day when each one of us will stand in front of God, and we will need to give account for our lives.
Because we matter, we won’t be able to hide behind war paint, a helmet or a touchscreen. It will be face to face. You and God; me and God.

And how will we be judged?
That is for another day.

All that I will say now is that God is eternal and has put eternity in your heart. He has made you for himself: to be his child, to be his friend and to be his lover. He is eternal and - because of Jesus - if you call out to him, if you receive his free gift of forgiveness, of intimacy with God now and eternal life, you will be eternal.

Today we protest.
We say that people cannot be turned into statistics. We are not here to remember the estimated 160 million people who died in war in the C20th. We are here to remember Adam and Luke, John and Harry and Philip, who gave their lives in the service of their country. We are here to remember them because each person really does matter. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

What are the beatitudes?

Matthew 5:1-12

Imagine a baby born into a loving, wealthy and privileged family. She needs feeding or changing and she is totally distraught. But as you look at this very unhappy baby, you can say of her, 'What a blessed child'. Why? Because even though she is unhappy now, you know who she is and what the future holds for her.

Today we look at what it means to be truly blessed. These verses are called the beatitudes, which translated from the Latin means happy or blessed. And what they say is surprising. It's a bit like our crying baby.

When you are poor in Spirit - when you don't believe in yourself because you know yourself, when you throw yourself on God, you may, at times, feel miserable, churned up and out of your depth, but you are blessed. Why? Because there is a place for you in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

When you mourn - when you grieve the loss of people or things that you held on to, that were so precious to you, that gave you your identity and your hope - you may be utterly empty and hopeless and crushed - but you are blessed. Why? Because you will be comforted, not with some false platitude, but with a real comfort.

When you are meek. Yes, we are talking doormat stuff here. When you allow others to walk over you, when you don't assert your rights: you may be despised by others; you may be treated as 'the scum of the earth; the garbage of the world' (1 Cor 4:13), but you will be blessed. Why? Because you will, on the resurrection day, inherit the earth.

When you hunger and thirst for righteousness. I note 'hunger and thirst'. This is something that you are desperate for. We don't think of people who hunger and thirst for anything as blessed; we think of people who have what they want as blessed. But Jesus says that if we hunger and thirst for righteousness (being in a right relationship with God, so that we think in the right way and live in the right way), then you are blessed. Why? Because you will, in the end, receive what you most desire.

When you show mercy to others - even to those who hate you, or who have tried to harm you - the world may say you are a fool, you are weak, but you are blessed because you will, in turn, receive mercy.

When you are pure in heart. I think of this as having a 'good heart', a good disposition. When you are transparent - like an onion and not like an orange (when you peel one layer of an onion off, you find the same thing all the way through) - so that what is on the outside is what is on the inside. Or, to use an illustration that some of the early church writers used, when you are like a totally pure mirror which reflects the likeness of Jesus and the glory of God, you are blessed. Why? Because you will see God. (cf 1 John 3:2)

When you are peace-maker: someone who makes peace between people and God, between people and people, between people and creation, it means that you will not get what you want here and now; it may even mean you get crucified like Jesus (peace-makers usually get crucified), but you will be blessed. Why? Because you are like Jesus who made peace between all things in creation and God, and you will be called a child of God. 

When you are persecuted, rejected because you choose to do what is right in God's eyes; when you are ridiculed or abused because you follow Jesus. In many countries Christians face terrifying persecution; in the West, where there is opposition, it is still usually just mockery. But for the first time for many centuries in our own country, Christians are identified in the media as 'them' rather than 'us'. It is then that Jesus says, 'You are blessed'. Why? Because that is what happened to the men and women of God in the past, and you are listed among them, and great is your reward in heaven.

In the Orthodox church these verses, the beatitudes, are read on most Sundays in ordinary time. They remind us, as believers, of how we are called to live now, and of what we are to expect now. At times it will be hard and painful and we will not be happy. But they also remind us that we are blessed because of our destiny, because of what lies ahead.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Conflict resolution


I'd like to speak this evening about conflict resolution!

Here we have two women who have fallen out with each other.

It is tragic.
Both are believers. Their names are in the book of life. They have far more in common than they have that is different. We'll see this a little later on.
Both are women who have worked together - and together with Paul. They have, we are told, 'contended for the gospel'. That implies that it has not been easy; it has cost them. They have struggled, they have fought for the gospel: they have battled to proclaim the message of the good news about Jesus Christ.

And now they have fallen out.

Paul, who is writing this letter, is not perfect. 

He knows what it is like to fall out with fellow believers, with people with whom he has worked.

He had argued with Barnabas about Mark. Paul doesn't want Mark to come with them on a missionary journey because Mark has already let them down once. But Barnabas is prepared to give Mark a second chance. And as a result Paul and Barnabas part ways (Acts 16:35ff)

And Paul falls out with Peter. Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles, and Paul challenges him (Galatians 2). 
So Paul knows the pain that comes when people are in conflict; he knows the anxiety and stress, the sleepless nights; and he knows how it is when people start to take sides; and he knows how the work of the gospel is set back when people who should be brothers and sisters find that they are, instead, enemies.

But if Paul knows what it is like to fall out with fellow believers, he also knows what it is like for those disputes to be resolved. And his relationship with Barnabas is resolved (Colossians 4:10), and Peter - towards the end of his life - confirms that Paul's writings are complicated, but that they are also sacred and authoritative. 

And because he knows what it is like to fall out with others, and because he knows what it is to be reconciled, Paul here urges these two women, Euodia and Syntyche to 'be of the same mind in the Lord'.

We don't know what this particular dispute is about.

It might have been over a person or an issue or a different approach to doing things. It might be that here were two people who would not naturally like each other, and that natural mistrust had been allowed to grow and fester. One of the great marks of a real church is that it is not made up of people who naturally like each other.
Or it could have been one of those myriad reasons why people fall out with each other: money, jealousy, love, pride, unforgiveness, resentment, a feeling that the other has taken us for granted or not shown us the respect we deserve.

Whatever, Paul has heard about this dispute, he realises the damage that it is causing, and he is not prepared to leave it at that.

1. He urges Euodia and Syntyche 'to be of the same mind'.

It is exactly the same phrase that he uses earlier when he appeals to the Philippian Christians 'to be like-minded' (Philippians 2:2), to have in them the same 'attitude of mind' that Christ Jesus had.
And in Philippians 2, Paul reminds the Christians in this city of Philippi that they are united in Christ, that they have received comfort in their troubles from the love of God, that they share the Holy Spirit who begins to give to them the same longing and desire for God, and that the Holy Spirit is starting to change them and to soften them and give them the gift of compassion.
But in Philippians 2, he also challenges them not to be controlled by selfish ambition or vain conceit. He urges them to consider others as more important than themselves, and to look to the interests of others rather than their own interests.

There is much wisdom here. 

When we do look to the interests of others, we often help ourselves. The other day I was in the car driving down a very narrow road with cars parked on both sides. A car came in the opposite direction. We met in the middle and looked at each other. For me, the nearest place to back was at the end of the street from where I had just come. For the other driver, it was two cars away. But she was obviously not going to move, and I bottled first. So I reversed. It took a bit of time, perhaps slightly longer than it might have done (I needed to make a point) - and at the end of the road, I have to say in my defence unintentionally, I blocked the way that she intended to go, so it took us even  longer. But I did think as I drove again down the street, it really would have been much much quicker if both of us had considered the other persons interests and not only our own - because then the whole operation would have been over in a much shorter time.

But in Philippians 2 Paul is not just urging us to consider the interests of others as well as ourselves. He urges us to have nothing less than the mind of Christ Jesus. And Jesus Christ was prepared to be crucified in order that we might become sons and daughters of God.

And here in Philippians 4, he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind - the mind that is in Jesus Christ. He is not necessarily asking them to agree. He is not even asking them to like each other. Christians don't need to agree on everything - we will disagree on politics, pacifism, sexuality, how to interpret the bible, gender roles, climate change. You name it; we'll disagree on it. 

But it doesn't matter, because Paul is asking them to remember what they have in common in Jesus. They've both been shown immense love by God. They have both received forgiveness beyond imagination. They've both received the Spirit. They are both part of one body, the Church. They are both being changed into the likeness of Jesus. 
And they are to stop thinking of their reputation and their status. They are to stop thinking of what is in their own interest - and they are to start thinking how they can best grow the other, and how they can best advance the work of the gospel.

And so I do urge you, if you have fallen out with a fellow believer, remember what you have in common with them; think of how - not your but - their interests can best be served, and how the interests of the gospel can best be served. 

Paul is in prison when he writes this letter. It is interesting that at the beginning of the letter he talks of those who preach Jesus Christ out of envy, intending to make his position in prison even worse. But he does not call down curses on them. He doesn't ask his followers to do them in, or even to go into the streets and oppose them. He doesn't even try to plot against them. Instead he trusts his case to God, and he delights that because of this, even if it is for the wrong reason, the message about Jesus Christ is proclaimed.

So if you have fallen out with someone who is a believer; if you profoundly disagree with them; if you don't like them - even though it is hard, do remember that it is not impossible to be reconciled. Because you are, through the Spirit, in Christ - and through the Spirit you can begin to see them as Christ sees them. 

And if you have fallen our with an unbeliever, may I urge you - even more so - to have the mind of Christ. Think of their interests, their real interest: which is that they might come to know Christ. And whatever you do, even if they have hurt you very badly, let God be the judge, follow Jesus and consider them as being of more value than yourself. What am I in comparison with you? I am a dead dog - albeit a forgiven and beloved dead dog!

Augustine wrote that the reason we love our enemy, that we pray for those who persecute us, is that they might become our friend and our brother in Christ.

2. Paul appeals to his 'yoke-fellow' or 'true-companion' to help these women have the same mind in The Lord.

We don't know who this 'true-companion is', but he is asked to be a peacemaker. 

And there are times when we see people in dispute that we are called to step in and be reconcilers. 

It is not necessarily about taking sides. Paul here doesn't take sides. But it is about reminding both how much they have received from Christ, about the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus, about the astonishing love of God and about what God calls us to be.

Division paralyses the Church. 

Don't allow bitterness or resentment or hurt pride to eat you up. 

On one occasion Jesus told his disciples that if they were on the way to the temple to offer their sacrifice (this was before he had died), they realised that their brother or sister had something against them, they were to first go to their brother or sister and be reconciled, and then make their offering.  
And when Jesus teaches the Lord's prayer, he says - and it is very dramatic - that if we are not prepared to forgive our brother or sister, God is not prepared to forgive us. 

This is really really important. That is why Paul is writing and asking his 'true-companion' to help these women sort it out. 

In one of the churches where I served as minister there were two women who were both remarkable in their work for the gospel. They both ran different but quite outstanding ministries; and they were both very very similar. That was part of the problem. The first was jealous of the second and the second tried to lord it over the first. They were at each other's throats - and as a result the work that they did was suffering, and as a minister I had to spend endless hours trying to get them to agree. In the end I gave up and simply separated the two ministries - with the result that they were able to get on with their work apart from the other. In one sense it was a great triumph - the ministries flourished; in another sense we simply swept the issues under the carpet - and they did come out again, in a much bigger way, thankfully after I left the church! 

That experience has made me very cautious about trying to get people to agree 'in the Lord' when they themselves are not prepared to be reconciled. But it has also made me acutely aware of how destructive it is when people are in conflict. 

In the end, if you are in dispute with someone, other people can help, but it is down to you. You can choose to let it go, or you can choose to hold on to the hurt, to keep the wound open and allow it to go septic and cancerous. 

With Paul I would plead with you, if you are in dispute with someone, 'to be of the same mind in the Lord'. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

What is predestination?

There are three slightly different versions
1. God predestines some to eternal life and some to death (this is known as double predestinarianism)
2. God predestines the elect to life
3. God foreknows what we will choose and therefore predestines us accordingly (although this is not strictly predestination: our choice causally - if not temporally - comes first; and the divine choice is a consequence of our choice)

The teaching of predestination should lead to deep assurance and confidence, and not to anxiety or fear.

It should lead us to

a) God's purposes for the world are unshakeable, even in the face of horrific evil and hostile world.  Acts 4:27-28 talks about how the most evil of all acts, the opposition to and crucifixion of the Son of God, was predestined by God. Even though it seemed that evil and death had triumphed, God was still totally in control.
b) God's purposes for us are unshakeable, even in the face of our sin and suffering (Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:5,11). We are predestined to be conformed into the image of Jesus.
c) God's mercy is for all who depend on God's mercy. The emphasis of Romans 9:13-18, 22-24 is not on the judgement of the damned but on the mercy of God. If anyone throws themselves on the mercy of God they will be saved.

Throughout the Old Testament, God consistently chooses the younger child over the older, the weaker over the stronger, the outsider over the insider.
1 Corinthians 1:27-30
In the end, the entire glory for our election and salvation goes to God. We cannot claim any credit.

God does not choose X instead of Y. He chooses X for the sake of Y. God chooses Abraham so that 'through him, all people will be blessed'.
John 15:15 'You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you .. To bear fruit'
Ephesians 1:4 'that we should be holy and blameless in him'
2 Timothy 2:10 'Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory'.


Before St Augustine, predestination never seems to have been an issue. The emphasis was on both divine initiative and human response to that initiative. The early church writers taught that this was about synergy (working together with God). So, for instance, when we are told that 'God hardens Pharoah's heart' this was considered to be both causal of and consequential on Pharoah hardening his own heart. They didn't really worry which came first.

In about 370AD the monk Pelagius was believed to be saying that 'We go to heaven because we deserve to go to heaven'.
St Augustine replies and argues that not only was Christ God's gift to us, but the fact that we put our trust in Christ is also God's gift to us. The fact that any of us go to heaven is not because we deserve it, but because of the sheer grace and mercy of God.
At first he says that God foreknows our decision and so predestines us to believe; but in his later years he teaches that some are predestined to life and others to death (what we call above 'doube-predestinarianism').

The church sided with Augustine in his argument against Pelagius. However it could never accept his fully developed position on predestination. They argued that God predestined people to life, but they were silent on the reason why people did not believe. It was only during the Reformation, with the teachings of Calvin, that a minority of believers adopted a strict double predestinarianism. The majority continued to maintain the earlier position of the church.

So, for instance, the Anglican position stated:
"Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby ... he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen ... to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation ..." (39 Articles)
It presumes to say nothing of those who do not come to Christ

There is a more refined position which states that Christ is the one who is predestined. In him all have life, but people choose to opt out by refusing to put their trust in him.

Whilst this is very Christ-centred, I am not sure that it answers the question. Why do some refuse to put their trust in Christ and others do? Are those who do trust him either more humble or better than other people? In which case it could be argued that we are back to the 'pelagian' position that those who are saved deserve to be saved. The credit therefore belongs to the saved, rather than the God who saves.

The problem of the position which says that God predestines some to life and some to death, is that:

a) it turns God into someone who creates people in order to damn them to eternal torment. If God knows that there is no possibility of repentance for some people, because they are predestined to death, why create them? It appears to turn God into satan. Paul wrestles with this in Romans 9 and comes very close to universalism (without going there) in the subsequent chapters. He ends the section of chapters 9-11 instead by shifting into doxology, praise of God whose wisdom is beyond our understanding.

b) it ignores those many references which speak of human free will and choice: for instance, Deut 30:19; Joshua 24:15; Jeremiah 18:7-10; John 3:16; Matthew 11:28-30

c) the bible does not speak explicitly of predestination to death. Even the texts which imply that Judas was predestined to betray Jesus, also talk of him having a choice; and Paul in Romans 9 does not build a theology upon a double predestinarianism. He significantly distances human thought from divine thought: 'What if God ... ' when talking about preparing 'vessels for destruction'.

d) double predestinarianism is often associated with the teaching that Christ's death was not for all but only the elect (so-called limited atonement). I would argue this is both unbiblical and leads to a critical loss of assurance. You can never know that you are one of the elect until the point of death. You may have the right belief, the right feeling; you may put your trust now in the mercy of God, but you can never know that you are not one of the elect, and that you may fall away at the end. You have to trust the fact that God has chosen you, and not just the work of Christ on the cross (which may not have been for you, anyway). You cannot say with Paul that you 'know who you have believed  and [are] convinced that he is able to guard what [you] have entrusted to him until that day' (2 Timothy 1:12).

[In the same way, those who emphasise free will over against predestination also lose assurance. Salvation is completely up to us. It leads us to a religion of works. Our inaction may mean that some will be damned. It means we put too much pressure on ourselves and on others].

My own conviction is that the bible does teach a predestination to life, but not a predestination to death. It places responsibility with those who refuse to come to Christ with those who make that decision.

While I recognise that this is not logical according to human reason,  I become wary when we go further than what the bible teaches. The danger of systematic theology is that we choose to give preferential weight to certain texts over against other texts. Obviously we need to do that, but when we do need to make choices we should be guided by how the majority Christians of former years (the Church) have interpreted those texts. We should be very cautious of constructing theological systems which end up saying things that cannot be justified by the bible.


We need to hold together both predestination and human free will, divine sovereignty and human freedom. The Bible teaches both. For instance, Paul writes, 'Think on what I am saying and the Lord will give you understanding in all of this' (2 Timothy 2:7).

Of course, our human minds cannot hold them together.

We can only look at one side of the coin or the other. We cannot look at both sides at the same time.

We need to pray as if it is all up to God (but recognise we have a part to play, including our prayer), and preach as if it is all up to us (yet recognise that only God can change hearts and minds).

It is as if the entrance to heaven has, written above it, 'enter here all who would have life', 

but on the other side, as we look back, has written, 'chosen before the dawn of time'.

It is the image of the room in which two ropes hang down. One says predestination and the other says free will. But unknown to us they are one rope around a pulley above the ceiling. If we hold on to one, it will not hold us. It is only when we hold on to both together that we will be held.

John 6:35-37, Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

This verse holds together everything: the invitation of Christ; human culpability for refusing to believe; the fact that those who come to Jesus are the gift of the Father to him; and the assurance that if we come to Jesus he will never turn us away.

I finish with a personal story. There was a time when, as a young minister, I emotionally and physically crashed. The circumstances are not important here. In my despair I never doubted the existence of God, but I did doubt that  I belonged to him. It was at about 3am, lying awake in great confusion, I remembered (or did God bring it to my mind?!) John 6:37. I remember praying, 'Jesus, I don't know really what this means, but I do come to you, and I know you will never turn me away'

If, in thinking about this subject, you wonder if you are one of the elect, or you are led to angst, I invite you simply to say to Jesus, 'I come to you'. I invite you to throw yourself on him. He will never turn you away, and 'you will find rest for your soul'.