Saturday, 26 October 2013

Hope, glory and power

These verses are a prayer.

It is a prayer which begins with thanksgiving. Paul thanks God for the Ephesian Christians – for their faith in Jesus and their love for all the saints: (vv15-16).
It moves into what we call intercession, Paul’s request for them. He prays that they will know more of the hope to which they have been called, the glory of their inheritance and the power of God that is at work in them: (vv17-19).
It concludes with a hymn of praise to the God of power (vv20-23).

In the Greek it is all one single sentence. There is only one full stop, and that is at the end of v23! I really pity the poor person who had to write this down as Paul dictated: Paul must have started the sentence and then got carried away.

So what are we to draw from these verses? How do they apply to us?

Paul prays that God will reveal to the Ephesian Christians, and to us, the bigger picture.

There is the story of three stonemasons who were chipping away at their rocks. Someone asked them what they were doing. The first said, ‘I’m breaking up rocks’. The second said, ‘I’m earning a living for my family’. The third stopped, puffed out his chest, and said, ‘I’m building a cathedral’.

Paul prays, and here I am quoting from the ESV (I don’t think the NIV is particularly helpful here), that ‘the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe ..’

In other words Paul is praying that God will open the eyes of our heart so that we will see the bigger picture: that we will know the hope to which we are called, the glory of the Church and the power available for us.  

We need light in order to see physical things with our physical eye.
In the same way, we need an inner light to see inner realities. We need God to give us this inner light, to open the ‘eye of our heart’, the eye of our soul or consciousness, so that you and I can see reality as it really is.

And that is really important. We can study these verses with our intellect, but it is only when God gives light to the heart that we will begin to really understand: not just here in our mind, but also here in our heart.

And I long for God to open eyes so that people who are blind to spiritual realities will open their eyes and see:
·         that they will see this world not just as a space rock subject to blind forces of nature, but as the beautiful creation of a wonderful God. They will see it as a creation and not as a chanc-ation. There are moments when God seems so obvious to me that I cannot understand why other people cannot see Him.
·         that they will see that God is not irrelevant, a spoil sport who wants to stop them from having fun, but that he is the author of life and love and laughter, that he loves them, has died for them and has an astonishing destiny for them and this creation – if only they will see and receive.
·         that they will see themselves and others in the light of this love of God
·         that in spite of the seeming impersonal random swings of fate and fortune there is one who is bigger and who is ultimately in control

And so Paul prays a prayer for us: that we will see the bigger picture of reality.

He prays that we will know

1. The hope to which we have been called.

Paul has spoken about this hope in the previous verses:

It is about you and me, about you and me in relationship to others, and about the whole of creation. It is the hope that we will be holy and blameless before him (v4), that we will together be his sons and daughters (v5), and that one day the new heaven and the new earth will operate in wonderful harmony as each created thing works in harmony under the authority of Jesus (v10).

This is the hope that is central to authentic Christian living.
·         It is the hope that one day we will see the immensity of the love of God, and that we will be filled with the love of God (Ephesians 3:17ff).
·         It is the hope that this broken creation, currently subject to the law of death (entropy) and sin (that bitter fight to the death for survival, which we understand as evolution) will one day be set free from sin and death (Romans 8:22-25).
·         It is the hope that death is not the end, that as Christ has been raised from the dead, so shall we (1 Corinthians 15:19ff; 1 Peter 1:3), and that one day we shall see him as he is and be transformed into his likeness (1 John 3:2-3);
·         It is the hope of righteousness (Galatians 5:5), that we shall partake of his nature (2 Peter 1:4).
·         It is the hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8), of the appearing again of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13), of the coming new age (Ephesians 1:21), of the coming kingdom of God [we pray for that every time we pray the Lord’s prayer], of heaven (Colossians 1:5; Titus 1:2;3:7), and of the glory of God (Romans 5:2; 2 Cor 3:12; Colossian 1:27).

Paul prays that we will not just know this hope in our head; he prays that we will know it here. This is real stuff. When this hope gets a grip on us, it transforms our lives. How we live will change.
 Peter tells us that it is a living hope (1 Peter 1:3).
He tells us that when people look at how it changes how we live, they will ask, ‘What is it that makes you different?’ (1 Peter 3:15). And the writer to the Hebrews tells how the saints of old were prepared to be mutilated, murdered and endured all things for the sake of the hope that they had (Hebrews 11:1).

It is that hope which drives our persecuted brothers and sisters in Iraq or Syria.
It is that hope which makes people give up all things here and now, for the sake of then and there.
It is that hope which gives us perseverance in trouble and joy in sufferings.  

2. The riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.

I really struggled with this!

At one level it is talking about Christ’s inheritance.

What do you give the person who quite literally has everything? What do you give the person who can create anything with a word?

I guess, you give him people who will to choose to share it with him, to delight in it and each other with him.

So the inheritance of Christ is the saints: you and me; it is people who follow Jesus – whether they lived long ago, now, or sometime the future. God the Father has given us, you and me, to Christ. You and I are, quite literally, God’s gift to Jesus. And when you put us together, as one body, it is an astonishingly rich gift.

But if we look at this at a deeper level we see something quite remarkable. Christ has been given all things by the Father (John 1:3; 13:3). He has been given this creation, the future, the saints and glory. But when a person becomes a believer, they do not just become a servant of Christ or a follower of Christ. They become a member of Christ. They are, to use the language of Ephesians, ‘in Christ’. They become part of Christ. In other words, Christ’s inheritance is now their inheritance.

Let me illustrate this. I have here a book. I am this filing card. I am God’s gift to Christ. The Father gives me to Christ. So I am put ‘in Christ’. Now this filing card represents you. You are God’s gift to Christ. The Father gives you to Christ. So you too are put in this book. But when you were put into this book, you were not just given to Christ, you were also given to me – and when I was put into the book, I was not just given to Christ, but to you.

In other words, Paul is praying not only that the Ephesian Christians will know the hope to which they are called, but they will also see the glory of the Church, the people of God.

The richness of the Church is the richness of the diversity of all people in Christ – from all places and all times. It includes each one of us, the unique people that we are, and the unique gifts that we have.

For the Ephesian church it meant that Paul was praying that the eyes of Jewish Christians would be opened so that they could see Gentile Christians as heirs together with them in Christ. It meant he was praying that the eyes of Gentile Christians would be opened so that they would see Jewish Christians as their brothers and sisters in Christ. Only then would Jews open their lives to Gentiles, and Gentiles open their lives to Jews.  Only then could they come together, eat together, and worship God. Only then could the richness of the Church be seen.

He was praying that these early believers would see that they needed each other, that their glory depended on the other’s glory.  

That does not happen naturally. Naturally we seek our own glory; we put up the barricades, close the doors and shutters of our lives, stay in our ghettoes, and stick with the people who are like us.

It is only when the Holy Spirit opens our eyes that we will see those who worship with us as our brothers and sisters in Christ; it is only then that we will start to see those who worship in very different ways, or in different times and places as our fellow believers. It is only then that we will realise that we need them. We need the saints of the past – don’t automatically dismiss tradition; we need the saints, men and women, who are different to us: socially, culturally, racially.   

Without this revelation churches will remain clubs for like-minded people. 
I remember as a curate in Ipswich being so troubled when a couple told me they were leaving St John’s because they felt that they were from a different class to most people and didn’t fit in. It seemed to be a denial of everything that we were about.
It is very easy for churches to become collections of different groups of like-minded people: our mums get together; our men get together; our singles get together; our retired people get together; our social activists get together; the business people get together, the people interested in mission get together; our youth get together.  And that is right: we need to be able to support each other in our individual Christian lives.  But it is not church in the fullest sense.

The glory, the richness of the Church is when Christ opens our eyes so that we see each other as members together of the body of Christ. It is that which releases us to love one another, to be in communion with each other: like with like, like with unlike. The richness, the glory of the church is seen when we die to ourselves and come alive to Christ and other people; when we humble ourselves and look to the interests of others, when we seek their help, when we forgive each other and treat the other as more significant than ourselves.

The richness of the inheritance of Christ, the saints, the Church, is when we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.

3. Paul prays that we will know the immeasurable greatness of the power of God at work in them.

This is the same power that brought Jesus Christ back from the dead, that seated him above all authority and power, and that has placed all things under his feet.

This is the power which will make spiritually dead people live
This is the power which will, one day, bring our bodies back from the dead
This is the power which puts us in Christ and keeps us in Christ
This is the power which enables us to persevere, to know joy in tribulation.
This is the power which means that we will bear fruit.
This is the power which works in us to change us, and will ultimately make us like Christ.

This power, we are told, is directed toward us.

I enjoy sailing – it is real messing about in boat stuff. You can sail with the wind behind you, pushing you in the direction you want to go. It is, however, impossible to sail directly against the wind. You go head to wind and you can’t do anything. When I sail with the wind, the power is for me.
When I try to sail against the wind, the power is against me.

Paul prays that we will see that this power of God is not against us, but for us.

It is when we glimpse the power of God for us that we will not lose confidence. Even though everything seems to go against us, when we fail, grow tired or disillusioned, when it seems the forces of darkness are overwhelming, we do not give in: we know that there is a power at work for us which can overcome everything. We know that we have been blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

And when we glimpse the power of God for us, we will pray.
We will pray because we want to touch the edge of this power.
We will pray because we want to keep our lives in line with this power.
And the more we see the immeasurable power of God, the bigger prayers we will pray.

More on this when we look at Ephesians 3:20, but if we have a God who can do the most astonishing things, why pray for temporary physical healing when we could be praying that someone will live for ever?

So today, with Paul, I pray that God will open my eyes and your eyes and that we will begin to see the cathedral, the bigger picture.

And that we will see with our inner-most being:

·         The hope to which we have been called;
·         The astonishing glory of the people of God in Christ;

·         The immeasurable power of God toward us. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

The gift of grace

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at these verses with Clive at the blessings that Christ has given us. 

This evening, as we spend a few more minutes looking at these verses, I would like to talk about grace.

If you notice from v1, the Christian lives in two places. They live ‘in Ephesus’, and they live ‘in Christ’.

They live in Ephesus

The currency of Ephesus is stars

There is nothing profound in my saying that. I am simply saying that Ephesus, and here Ephesus stands for human society at large, deals in merit. We think that our value, our significance, our identity, our status depends on our achievements, qualifications, wealth or our power.

It is the star culture. If you are well-behaved at school you get a star. If you are not well-behaved you don’t.
If you live according to the rules, you get the reward. If you don’t, you don’t.

Father Christmas comes from Ephesus. He gives presents to children who are good.

And this star currency means that we need to prove ourselves, to earn the stars.
We need to prove that we deserve the stars. I’m more attractive, I don’t show my age as much, I’ve made it in my career, my business is bigger, my church is bigger, I’m a better singer, I’m more intelligent, I work harder, I'm more moral.

Perhaps that is, you think, the way society should be.

But there are many problems with a star society.

·         Star currency can turn us into people who are insufferably arrogant. “Look at how many stars I have earned. It is because I am such a great guy”.
·         It can turn us into people who quickly judge each other. “They haven’t got the stars, because they did not work hard enough or they did not have the talent or the self-discipline – unlike me”.
·         It can turn us into people who are cynical because it doesn't always work. The bad guys get the stars and the good guys get nothing. And even if it is not as bad as that, we see how the people who have the stars seem to get more stars.

·         Or it can turn us into people who are hopeless crushed.
We long for stars, but we never seem to be good enough to get them.
We are like the child who is always trying to please their parents – even though nothing that they do seems to satisfy them.
We are like the high jumper. I read recently someone who pointed out that in every other sport the athletes are set up for success: if they are going to win they need to reach further and go faster. But the poor high jumper is set up for failure. He succeeds in jumping over the bar, and what do they do? They raise it. And they’ll raise it, until you fail. Even if you win, they'll ask you if you want to put it higher.

A star economy sets us up for failure. However good we are, we are not quite good enough.

On Wednesday I came downstairs from the office for the coffee that is served after our 10am communion. One person said, ‘Malcolm can’t have a cup of coffee because he didn’t come to communion’. He was only joking, I hope.
But that is the language of the star economy: you haven’t done the work so you don’t deserve the star.

These Christians live in Ephesus. The star economy is part of their life. But their real home is somewhere else.

They live in Christ

Do you notice how the phrase ‘in Christ’ or ‘in Him’ is repeated in these verses: v1,3,4,6,7,9,11,12,13 [twice]!

And the currency of Christ is not stars, but grace.

V7: ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us’

And that is very good news because, as far as God's economy is concerned, we would never be good enough to earn even the tiniest tinniest star.

The amazing thing about grace is that it is a gift of God, from him to us, and it is completely unearned.

GRACE, as is often said, can stand for God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.

We have every spiritual blessing; we are beloved (v4), adopted as children in God’s family (v5), forgiven (v7); we are part of something much bigger, we have a purpose to play and a glorious inheritance (v10) – and we have done nothing to deserve it. It is all gift.

It is purely and completely because of God and his love.

And in these verses Paul stresses that even our coming to God is not something that we have done. It is something that God did: 'For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight' (v4). 

These verses teach predestination and cause a great deal of anxiety.
v5: He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ;
v11: In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the purpose of his will.

But please don’t  get worried about predestination.
First of all we need to remember that we are working with ideas that are far bigger than our human brain can comprehend. The bible teaches two things without compromise. 
The first is that God wants everyone to be saved, that each one of us needs to choose to respond to the love of God, and that it is our choice. 
The second is that if you have chosen God, it was not you who chose him, but he who chose you. 
They are contradictory to our limited reason, but we need to hold on to both.

Paul has a reason for declaring that we are predestined.

We live in a star economy, so people worry:
Am I good enough to be saved?
Do I know enough to be saved?
Do I have enough faith to be saved?
Can I repent enough to be saved?
And the answer is ‘NO of course you are not good enough, or know enough or repent enough or have enough faith to be saved’!

But grace says it doesn't matter. You are here in church (for whatever reason – simply to sing or because someone else is singing, or because you walked in, or because you normally come) and you are listening to this message and beginning to understand it – not because you are good or have enough faith – but because God in his love chose you before the creation of this world to be his.

So he says, v13: 'And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth'.

Let me add one other thing. If you worry that God has not chosen you, you have nothing to worry about. If God’s grace was not at work in you then you really would not be bothered by anything that I am saying. We’ll see how a bit later in the book Paul says we were dead, but God in his grace and love made us alive. Those who are dead do not worry that they are dead. If you start to worry that you are dead, then there must be a spark of life there - a sufficient spark to get you to do something. 

So how did this happen? How did God move us from having our primary home ‘in Ephesus’ to having our primary home  ‘in Christ’?

It cost Him everything.
It cost him the death of the One who he Loved (v7)

God gave his Son, who had been with him for all eternity, to die on the cross for our forgiveness.

It costs us nothing.
We have done nothing to merit or deserve this. It is all of grace.

When CS Lewis was asked what the difference was between Christianity and other world religions he replied: ‘That is easy. It is grace’. God welcomes us, loves us, forgives us, accepts us, before we do anything.

It was, says Paul, while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.

There is a Buddhist version of the story of the Prodigal Son. It is an earlier version, much earlier than Jesus. It comes from "the Lotus Sutra" told by one of Buddha's senior disciples,  Maha-Kasyapa (about 500BC).  It tells of a son who takes his father's money, runs away from home, leads an extravagant life, becomes poor and resorts to begging. The father looks for him but fails to find him. Many years later the son happens on the father, who is now fabulously wealthy, but he doesn't recognise his father. His father, however, recognises him. He orders two guards to bring his son to him, but the son is terrified. He still does not recognize his father and thinks he is being arrested by this powerful, wealthy man. So the father orders his release, and then offers him a job as a servant, clearing out excrement. The father says nothing, but as his son proves himself over the years, so he is promoted to more senior positions. The father finally reveals himself as father to the son on his deathbed and announces that his son will inherit the business. His son has proved himself. 

Maybe Jesus heard someone tell this story. If he did, he retells it in a very different way. The son runs away, leads an extravagant life, becomes poor and resorts to begging. But the son, in Jesus' story, when he comes to his senses, decides to go home and ask his father to take him back as a servant. But as he gets near home, his father sees him and runs to him. The son starts to say, 'I have sinned against God and you, and I will be your servant', but his Father does not even let him finish his speech. Instead he rejoices and welcomes him home as his son and heir. 

The Buddhist version makes more sense for those who are 'in Ephesus'. The son has made a big mistake and should prove himself that he is worthy. He needs to earn those stars

The version that Jesus told is quite scandalous, especially to people who all their lives have lived 'in Ephesus'. The son does not need to prove himself. The love of the Father comes first. All the son needs to do, all you need to do, is to be embraced by his father's love.

And that is grace.

And the consequence of living ‘in Christ’ is that we will praise God, and particularly we will praise his grace.

Notice how praise plays such a significant part in these verses.

V3: Paul sings praise to the Father who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing
V6: He gives praise to God for his glorious grace
V12: He declares that we live to praise God’s glory
V14: He announces that the final saving of those who belong to God will bring praise to God’s glory.

Can we imagine a world in which all people praise a God who lavishes on us his grace?

I praise that which I value.

I can choose to value good works, self-reliance, pulling myself up by the bootlaces. I can choose to cherish my earned stars and praise myself for earning them. Someone quipped, ‘The average Englishman is a self-made man who worships his creator’.

Or I can choose to be embraced by grace.  

I know that everything that I have is a gift. I know that I am one who has received mercy. I have confidence before God – because I know that it is not about what I can do for him, but what he has done for me.

And if I am embraced by grace, then I will praise the God of grace, and I will begin to live grace.

"Grace means you're in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own."

There really is nothing more precious than the overwhelming grace which God lavishes on us. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

on Sexuality and sex

Context for this talk

1.    The issue of homosexuality, civil partnerships and gay marriage. It is an issue with which I have been wrestling ever since theological college when some students boycotted the communion service we had with members from other theological colleges because one of the students at one of the other colleges was in an openly gay relationship.

2.    The ground has shifted seismically in the last few years. Most people under the age of 40 cannot see what Christians are going on about. To them it seems that we are ungracious and intolerant. It has meant that a whole generation has written off the bible without really knowing what is written in it.

And I have struggled with the fact that we preach grace, and yet on this topic appear legalistic.

Sexuality raises profound questions
There is the question of identity:
Who am I? We identify ourselves in contrast to others. I am this and not that. And our sexuality is one of the strongest factors in helping us to form our identity. I am male not female, or female not male.

There is the question of motivation
What makes me do what I do?
Our sexuality is one of our strongest drivers. Freud would say that it is the strongest of our drivers (it is interesting that Freud argues this. Pre-Renaissance man would have argued that fear of God was the greatest driver, but once you remove God from the picture .. ). But if we don’t go as far as Freud, we have to admit that sexual attraction, finding another person attractive or desirable, has a significant impact on how we relate to them.

Gordon MacDonald writes, ‘Not many men can remember the exact moment that new kind of awareness of connection between a boy and a girl began. I am one who can remember. It was the first day of school in the fall, sixth grade. I was sitting on a bench near the school's main entrance waiting for some friends to arrive. A girl named Barbara approached me. She was quiet for a moment, and then with one finger she pushed back the front edge of my very blond hair and said, "You have the most beautiful hair." I have never been the same since that moment. I was without words. Her touch to the top of my head and her comment about my hair ignited something inside me. I lost all interest in waiting for my friends. Something magic had occurred. But if there was something profound that I should have said, I missed it, and soon the magic moment was gone and Barbara skipped off to other things. From that day forward, my mother never had to speak to me again about my appearance as I left for school’. (from When Men think Private Thoughts)

Yet if we look at Jesus we see someone who, at least on the surface, seems remarkably untouched by sexuality

1.    He talks easily to the woman at the well (John 4)
2.    There is the woman who anoints his feet and then wipes them with her hair. It could have been profoundly erotic, but Jesus receives it as it is meant to be received (Luke 7:36ff)
3.    Or what do you make of the fact that in John’s gospel, we are told in John 13:23, ‘One of the disciples whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him’. The ESV translates it, ‘was reclining at table at Jesus side’. The Greek is far more direct. It says that John was reclining at table ‘in the bosom of Jesus’.

It seems that Jesus looks beyond a man or woman’s sexuality and sees the person beneath.

It is tied in with the vision that the NT seems to give for the future Kingdom of God: It is a place where we will be beyond gender
Jesus talks about the future kingdom where there will be no marriage, ‘for we will be like the angels’ (Matthew 22:30)
And there is the key verse: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)

One of the goals of the Christian life is that we become so Christ like that we see people as Jesus sees them.
The world looks for physical beauty and desirability. He looks at people beyond beauty and beyond sexuality. In this sense political correctness is absolutely correct – its problem is that you cannot command this from outside. It has to come from inside.  We need to be able to see a 97 year old woman with exactly the same eyes as we might see a 27 year old woman.

And there is some very liberating teaching in the bible about the beauty of women being not in their appearance but in their inner person (1 Peter 3:3-4).

There is a story told from the desert fathers and mothers. The general maxim of the monks was that they were to flee emperors, bishops and women. Emperors – offer wealth; Bishops – offer status in the church; Women – because of sex. But one story is told of some monks walking on the road, seeing some nuns and fleeing. Mother Sarah, one of the nuns, challenges the men, ‘If you were truly monks you would not see us as women’.

And when we look at Jesus identity and self-understanding: he knows himself as a child of his heavenly Father (eg. John 13:3)
And Jesus’ motivation is love – delight in the other in who they could become; desire that they might become that person so that we can enjoy full union with them – not at physical level but at a deeper soul level.


1. Welcome the fact that you are a sexual being

Don’t try and run away from it. It may not be part of the future order, but it is part of the current created order.

God made men and women. He also gave us differing degrees of those things that we call masculine and feminine in each of us. I’m not even going to try and define those things, because they have been redefined by every culture at every time. Each society has its own definition of what it means to be a true man or a true woman.

In Genesis 2 we are told that God created man, that he did not find a suitable ‘helper’ for him, so he took a rib and made the woman. In other words, he takes one and makes it two, in order that the two would desire/love each other and become one. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 

It is a critical passage which is quoted several times in the NT. 

Jesus quotes it as a reason for the command against divorce (Matthew 19:4)
Paul quotes the passage in 1 Corinthians 6 as an argument for showing that when you have sexual intimacy with a person you become part of them and they of you – at a deeper level than the purely physical.
He also quotes it in Ephesians 5:31, where he adds the words, ‘This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.’

In other words, what Paul is saying is that this union of the two, this ‘one flesh’, this physical sexual intimacy is a reflection of a more profound relationship, between Christ and the Church.

So at its very highest, the image of man and woman together, face to face, desiring and being desired by the other, as complete equals (in 1 Cor 7:4 Paul writes that the wife’s body belongs to her husband and that the husband’s body belongs to his wife; in Eph 5:28 he tells husbands to love their wives bodies as if they were their own), delighting in and being delighted in by the other, possessing the other and belonging to the other, part of each other, complete together – is a glimpse of the greater reality, the bigger picture of the relationship between the Father and the eternal Son of God, and is a glimpse of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his people.

That is why the early thinkers of the church were right to see the Song of Solomon both as a celebration of sexuality and also as a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church.

In other words, our sexuality and our sexual attraction to one another is a reflection of the deep desire that God has for communion, union, with us. And it is why so many men and women of God will say that there are moments when time with God can be more intimate, more affirming, more peace giving, more ecstatic (in the original sense of the word: 'ek-stasis' – taking us out of ourselves) than even the act of making love.

So see your sexuality as a gift – see your being drawn to another person, your finding another person attractive – as a picture of the greater delight that God has in you and of the delight that you can find in him, of his desire for you and your desire for him.

And for those of us here who struggle with same sex orientation. Yes, you may wish to pray that God will take it away, but very few people testify to that prayer being answered in the way that they wish. And if that is not the answer, then treat this as we are called to treat all things: treat it as a gift from God that is given now that can be used for his glory and through which you can grow in intimacy with God and love for others.

And what can be seen as a trial can be turned round to be an immense blessing.
One woman who has a same sex orientation told me that one of the advantages that she has is that she sees the world in a different way to the majority who are attracted to people of the opposite sex. Adverts, which often use sexuality to sell items, don't work for her. And I wonder whether that is a reason why so many people who have same sex orientation often think out of the box and can be so creative. And because many have struggled with the demons of despair and rejection, I wonder whether that is why some are so aggressive and others are so compassionate.  

So whatever your orientation, and wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of what we see as masculine or feminine – it’s OK. Give thanks to God for it.

2. Do not turn sex into a God

Our society, like many primitive societies, has bowed down to the God of sex. It has removed the living God and all that is left is the body and the desires of the body. It is not, like earlier societies, concerned about sex as a means of procreation. It is more concerned with sex as recreation. You can do what you like with your body, providing that you do not infringe the liberty of others (or you do not end up costing the NHS too much).

So sex and your sexuality has become the new God: Live for your desires; don’t have inhibitions. If you desire someone, have what you desire.

And that, of course, is disastrous.

If I live like that, then I begin to see and treat others as objects that exist to satisfy my physical desires; and I begin to treat myself as an object. Outward appearance becomes everything – and that leads to a tyrannical sense of self-identity. I am only worth something if I look good. It will lead to self-loathing: however good you look now, you are not going to look like that in 30 years times. Film stars appear so glamorous on the screen or in photo shoots, but when you see them in real life they are very ordinary. And what does sex on the screen have anything to do with sex in the real bedroom? We are presented with an unreachable God.

And when we make the satisfaction of our sexual desires our God it does lead to abuse – self abuse, abuse of others – and destruction and heartbreak. It also leads to the marginalization of those who are older, because however many massages or face lifts or implants you have, you are never going to look like a 25 year old.

Do not turn sex or your sexual desires into a God. It will become a very cruel ruler. And it will never satisfy.

And please do not let your sexuality define your identity, especially if you are a Christian. Galatians 3:28 tells us that you are not first a man or a woman. You are not straight or gay. You are first a forgiven and beloved child of God with a destiny in heaven.

3. Do not become a servant to the power of sex and sexual attraction

Society has always recognised the power of sexuality.

Different societies have introduced different rules to regulate this uncontrollable power.

In some societies, women have to be fully covered up (I note that it is usually the woman who have to take the precautionary measures)
In others, men and women are segregated, ordered so that they sit separately in places of worship

What about the early Christian community?

Interestingly the New Testament does not give much practical advice.

In fact, thinking about it, there is no solid practical advice. Rather there is simply the call to live pure lives, but it is very general.

For instance, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 : ‘that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honourable’ (v4)

The key principle is love. Don’t use your sexuality to wrong your brother or sister.

Be careful of your sexuality – not because it is wrong – but because it is so powerful. An attractive woman/man can use their sexuality to reduce someone else to a gibbering wreck.

So watch what you wear: in terms of the message you are giving out. There is a place for dressing up when going out, but there is also a place for modesty.
And watch the flirting – even if it is just eye games. The eye is the window into the soul, and when we play a particular kind of eye game we are asking, ‘Would you let me in?’ We may think we would never do it, but …

We do need to be aware of our sexual desires: try and work out where they are coming from – perhaps they point to a deeper need and a deeper desire

When a person allows the Holy Spirit to take control of their lives, they will want to seek to live holy lives, for God. Do you remember the push me – pull you of Dr Doolittle?  It was a horse-like creature with two heads. We too are like that. At one end we are facing toward the Spirit of God; at the other end we are facing the world and its desires. If we feed one end of the horse that will grow stronger. And we often feed the wrong end of our horse.

It is so easy to go wrong on this, and to deceive ourselves. Disaster follows.

And please never ever think – not even for one moment - that you stand.
Gordon MacDonald tells of the time when he was asked how the devil would destroy his ministry. He replied, in all honesty, ‘I don’t know, but I do know that it wouldn’t be through my personal life’. Within a year he was having an affair.

Guard your mind. It all begins in those first thoughts and what we then do with them. Submit your mind to the Holy Spirit. Kill the thoughts at the beginning.

4. The place for sexual intimacy is in the context of an exclusive marriage relationship between man and woman.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, speaks about the gift of marriage. The consistent message of the bible is that marriage between man and woman is good, and is the only place for the right use of the gift of sexual intimacy.

Paul argues that one of the reasons for marriage is as a release ‘for those who burn’, who find the desire for sex overwhelming – and, I guess in those situations, who find masturbation an unsatisfactory solution.

That teaching is something that society today finds very difficult to take.

Why can’t I do what I want to do with my body?

But as people who call Jesus ‘Lord’ we can’t do what we wish with our body because

1.    We recognize how precious our bodies are. One day they will be resurrected. Your body has an immense dignity. When you sin sexually you sin against your body
2.    Our bodies are not our own. In 1 Cor 6:12-17, Paul argues that our bodies are part of Christ. We therefore cannot join them to a prostitute, because that would mean we are joining Christ to the prostitute. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). 

If you sleep with someone, I know this might sound strange, but Christ is also sleeping with them. What you do with them in the bedroom, Christ is doing with them. What you allow them to do to you, you are also allowing to be done to Christ.

And in sexual intimacy, it is not just a matter of two bodies becoming one – something happens at a deeper level.

It is like two cards that have been stuck together. You can’t pull them apart without tearing them both.

And I think that in our most intimate relationship there really has to be a mutuality – two coming together face to face to complement each other and affirm each other, and to affirm the dignity of the other’s body. And that is why I would argue that anal, oral,  ‘50 Shades of Gray’ stuff, sex do not sufficiently honour the dignity of both human bodies or both human persons – even if both partners desire it. I’m not convinced that mutual masturbation does that either. Nor is using sex as a weapon – whether promising or withholding, forcing yourself on another or having constant headaches.

Rather our most intimate moments need to mirror the relationship between Christ and his Church – that relationship of two becoming one in every way.

Perhaps we can express it with a ball and socket metaphor. The ball was made to fit into the socket. I realise this is natural theology, and it is not in the bible. But we were made to fit, and if you try and make it fit any other way it is going to do violence to the body.

5. Honour those who, for whatever reason, commit themselves to a life of celibacy.

Jesus talks about people who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.

Matthew 19:10ff: ‘The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 encourages people to take seriously the possibility of a celibate lifestyle: both to save us from this world’s worries, but also so that we can be devoted to God.

I think of some of the really great men and women of God who have made the decision to be celibate: from Jesus himself, and then Paul, down to Mother Theresa and someone like John Stott. 

I am struck by a passage from John Stott’s commentary on 1 Thessalonians. He writes, ‘An additional paragraph is needed for those of us who are single and therefore lack the God-given context for sexual love. What about us? We too must accept this apostolic teaching, however hard it may seem, as God’s good purpose both for us and for society. We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God’s standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ’s yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected (‘sublimated’ would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people.’’ (p84f)

I am also immensely grateful for several senior Christian ministers who have had the courage to be open about their same sex orientation but who have also said that they are committed to a celibate life-style. 

At the Orthodox monastery I met a monk who was also married. He and his wife took the decision that they would live as monk and nun, in the same community, but in separate houses. I wonder what you make of that?

Whatever we make of that, we need to honour those who, for whatever reason, are single and celibate in our community


I've come to realise that the issue is not about sexual orientation, but how that orientation is expressed.
There is a line between love and lust. It is very hard to draw. But Romans 1:24-27 is speaking about our self-destructive lusts (verse 24 is speaking of heterosexual practices that degrade our bodies; vv26-27 are speaking of homosexual practices). When we surrender to those lusts it is not truly loving because it is ultimately destructive for both partners.

And because the issue is not about sexual orientation, I do not think we need to be paranoid of the love between man and man and woman and woman.

The bible, as we are often told, speaks of the love of David and Jonathan. It describes it as greater than the love between man and woman. 

Different cultures express that love in different ways

India – holding hands
Eastern Europe – kissing. In Russia, men in Baptist communities would even kiss each other on the lips. It is quite scary, if you are not used to it, to have a Russian with a big beard bearing down on you!
Football match – players embrace/lift each other up/roll about together on the ground. In any other context it would be treated as a bacchanalian orgy.

Part of the problem is our paranoia over any man-man touching. We’re less hung up about woman-woman touching. The nearest we get is the one arm man-hug.

And maybe expressing same sex friendship in more physical ways may help those who feel isolated because of their sexual orientation - so long as there are limits. Those limits depend on where you know you are, where you think the other person is, and the particular culture you live in. Personally I would suggest that touch is OK, provided that genitalia are not involved. That is when the Romans 1 kind of lusts so easily take over from what previously was love.

But each person needs to know their limits

And if this is an issue for you, I would also suggest that you have one or two people you can trust, and you make yourself accountable to them.

And because the issue is not about sexual orientation, if a same sex couple came to me and asked me 'to bless' their relationship, I am not sure I could do that - because of what society would hear me saying. But I could say that I would pray with them, thank God for their love for and commitment to each other, and pray that God would use their relationship to bless them and bless others, to bring them to Him, and to allow them to grow as Christians in holiness and love. 

I do not think that we can expect non-Christians to live in a godly way.
In the past people did because the laws of society demanded it, and if they didn't there were penalties (the laws against homosexual behaviour were introduced by Thomas Cromwell, who wanted something that he could use against the monasteries). But civil society has changed, and people have taken on very different norms.

So I do not think that we cannot expect people who have turned to Christ to be converted in every area of their life immediately they become Christians. Conversion is a moment, but it is worked out in a life time. And that is true in this area of sexuality and sex. For a single person having several sexual partners, for a gay couple or a heterosexual couple who are doing things to each other's bodies that are ultimately destructive – this will be a real struggle. I don’t think they should necessarily leave each other, unless the whole relationship is abusive. But for their sake, their partner’s sake, the gospel’s sake and the sake of the kingdom of God they will need to learn to express their love for each other in more affirmative ways.

I remind you again of 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul writes that each of us, and I stress each of us, needs to learn how to control our body in purity.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Gregory the Grain (an all age talk for harvest)

I would like to tell you the story of Gregory the Grain. He lived in Gressingham.

He was a grand grain. He was a grain with a brain. He was a graduate with a degree from agricultural college. He was a bit of a grafter and got a good grade. He learnt to say, 'Grateful graylags grazing green grasslands' - which for a grain is quite impressive. He deserves congratulations.

Yes, there was that incident when, against his granny's advice, he ran away to Gretna Green to marry Grace the grasshopper, but it had come to grief. Grace had tried to eat him. When he came back he had to grovel.

But now he was the star of a TV advert for Granary. 
He dressed immaculately. He wore the finest designer label: Gravitas; and the most expensive body spray: Husk.
He had two good friends: there was Granville the grocer and Grit the grunter.

Gregory had a problem.
He was gregarious, famous, funny, smart, well-dressed. He had influence and respect.
But he felt that something was missing. He felt unfulfilled.

He grappled with this problem.
He changed his diet. He cut down on the greasy grills. He knew it was a bit greedy. He started to eat gruel with gravy.
He changed his jacket. From grey to green.
He went on a holiday. To ... you guess ... Greece.
He even tried to be religious. He said grace before meals.

But it didn’t work. He still felt something was missing.

So he went to see his friend Griselda. He greeted her.

‘Griselda’, he said, ‘I’m a bit grumpy today. I’m the grooviest grain in all of Gressingham, but I am not fulfilled’.

Griselda thought for a minute. Then she said, ‘You are a grain. You have an amazing life within you. But that life can only come alive when you die. It is only when you go into the grave, under the ground, that you will fully come alive.’

Poor Gregory grimaced. 'I don’t want to die', he grumbled.

I don’t want to go down into the ground with the grubs.
I don’t want the farmer to dig a hole, throw me into it, and pile soil on top of me.
I don’t want to be out there when it rains.
I don’t want them to press the soil down around me.
It all sounds quite grim and gruesome.

But Griselda said to him: ‘Don’t be afraid, Gregory. I agree it is difficult, but it is not impossible. You are not on your own. You need to grasp this. Once there was the Great Grain. He taught that if we want to be satisfied, to be fulfilled, to be fruitful, then we first have to die. And he did die. He let the farmer dig a hole, throw him into it and pile soil on top of him. He let the rain fall on him.  He let them press down the soil around him.

They thought that was the end of the Great Grain. But it wasn’t. One day they saw a tiny little growth coming out of the ground – just where the great grain had gone into the ground. It grew and grew. It looked different to the great grain. But it was the great grain. And as he grew he produced new grain, more grain, much more grain.

Jesus said: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.' (John 12:24f).

Or to put that another way, if we want to live - really live, and be satisfied and bear good fruit, we need to be prepared to die.

That is hard.
It is hard to understand.
It is surprisingly easy to do - if we choose to do it.

We need to be like the grape, which is crushed, before it can become wine
We need to be like the caterpillar, which turns into a chrysalis, before it can become a butterfly

It is actually what happened, the bible tells us, when we were baptised.
We died to our old self: the old self which lives as if this world is the world that really matters, as if I and the people I love are the people who really matter.

And the story of Gregory the grain reminds us that if we wish to follow Jesus we need to be prepared to die, while we live. It doesn't mean we need to have suicidal tendencies. Rather it means every morning, when we get up, we take our longings, our desires, our sense of success or failure, our hopes and ambitions and fears for the day, and we put them to one side. We mentally strip ourselves of everything that relies on the things of this world or our own ability. We have died. And we open ourselves to God, to his word, to what he wants for us.

It is no longer our agenda, our plans, our rights, our ambitions, our desires, our hopes, our comfort, our strength that matter.  It is his agenda, his plans, his ambition, his desire, his hope and his strength that really matter.

The acorn has to die, before the oak tree can grow.
The grain must die, before the field gives a great harvest.
You have to be willing to die before you can be fruitful for the Lord Jesus and really LIVE.

Remember Gregory the grain.
Remember the Lord Jesus.

He did die. And he invites us to follow him.