Saturday, 8 February 2014

How can I live a good life that brings glory to God?

Matthew 5:13-20

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Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (v20)

Jesus in the previous verses has told us that:

You are either salt or you are not salt (v13)
The emphasis here is on what happens when the salt loses its taste. Technically, salt cannot lose its taste – but it can become diluted. And if it does, it is worthless.

You are either light or you not light (v14-16)
In verses 14-16, Jesus uses two pictures.

The first is that of a city on a hill. If you are the city on the hill, you will not be able to be hidden. If you drive down the M11, you will come to London. You will not miss it.

And Jesus says, in the same way, if you are light you will shine. People will see your light. It is possible to put a lamp under a basket, but it is pointless. Why bother to light the lamp in the first place? Light shines.

So the critical question is: how do we become salt – and keep our saltiness? How do we become light – and keep our light shining? How can we live lives of such righteousness that they exceed even those of the scribes and Pharisees?

The scribes and the Pharisees get a bad press in the bible. But we must not forget that they were considered to be the good, the moral people of that society. They were the rule makers and the rule guardians. They were the ancient equivalent of those in our society today who are socially conscious, environmental friendly, and what we critically call politically correct – but is actually about valuing each person as an individual.

So what Jesus is saying to his followers is that if you wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you need to live lives that are better than those of the best people who are around about you.

How do we do that, especially if Christianity is a religion for sinners?
Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners: of drunkards, traitors and  hookers.

I was talking with someone on Friday and was saying to them that this church was for sinners. If he considered himself a good person then he didn’t need to be here, and wasn’t welcome. But if he considered himself to be a sinner and messed up, then he was very welcome.

And yet Jesus here says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (v20)

How do we, who are sinners, become more righteous than the most moral people in society today?

1. We need to go to the bible, to the law and the prophets.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them ....’ (Matthew 5:17)

The source of the morality of the Pharisees were the traditions of their elders.
The source of morality for people today is the media and pressure groups.

Jesus is highly radical here. He says to his listeners that if they wish to know what true righteousness is, what a truly good life is, then they are to listen not to the elders, not to the media, but to the law and the prophets.

People wonder why we have the OT, the first 2/3 of the Bible.

It is the story of how God spoke to a nomad called Abraham about 6000 years ago, and said to him, ‘I’m going to make your people a great people, who will be my special people’.
It is the story of that people. They became a homeless slave people, who God rescued and gave a land. He gave them a precious gift: his law.
It is the story of their relationship with God, of their repeated disobedience.  
It is the story of God’s judgement on them and of his mercy.
And it is the story of how God promised that one day he would give them a ruler, who would establish his kingdom – and that on that day people would begin to do what God wanted them to do, not because they had to, but because they freely wanted to. God says, ‘I will put my Spirit in you’.

We need that story. We need, as Jesus said, ‘The law and the prophets’. We need ‘the smallest letter’, the ‘least stroke of a pen’ (v18). Other translations say, ‘every jot and tittle’!

So don't edit it - we need all of it.

The Justice and the mercy.
The slavery and the freedom.
The exile and the return.
The death and the life.
The suffering and the glory.

We need the psalms: the songs that long for God; that are overwhelmed with grief; that declare the wisdom of God; that are full of emptiness, anger, trust and praise.

We need the wisdom

We need the prophets: who speak of the coming Kingdom, and of the coming king: of the one who will rule and who will change the hearts and minds of men and women.

We need the law: because as we study the law we begin to glimpse the way of God, the heart of God – his deep love for people and his creation; his passion for justice, for the outcast or stranger; it speaks of an order that liberates and allows us to become who we were made to be. Yes, some of those OT laws may seem very obscure to us – but when we study them, when we ask why God gave them to his people for that particular time, we begin to uncover a deep wisdom.

And Jesus does not relax the demands of that law: ‘Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ (v19).

And we’ll see how he does that in the next few verses. The law says, ‘Do not murder’. Jesus says, ‘Don’t even insult another person’.

And there are many OT laws that are not immediately relevant for today. We do not follow the laws about circumcision, or what we can or can’t eat, or what we can do or can’t do on the Sabbath (which is Saturday not Sunday).

But we need to be very careful before we say that any of the OT laws were only relevant for that time and are not relevant for us today, even some of the most obscure – like not wearing clothes that combine two different fabrics. We need to make sure that in some way we have not rejected the law but that we have understood the heart of that law, the reason that it was given, and that we have now extended that law.

In Matthew 23, Jesus criticises the Pharisees for two reasons.

The first is hypocrisy. They teach the law, but they do not practice what they preach.

The second is that they have not really understood the law. They have missed the point of the law.

Jesus says (Matthew 23:23), ‘Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees. For you tithe (that is, give a tenth) mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the former’.

He says that they are like the person with a big hot mug of coffee.  A bluebottle decides to do a death dive into the mug. A gnat thinks ‘that’s fun’, and follows suite. You spend 5 minutes trying to fish out the gnat, and when you’ve finally got him, you drink the rest. You’ve somehow become blind to the blindingly obvious.

Jesus was asked what the heart of the law was. He replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Those two commands, he says, sum up the whole law and prophets. By saying that he was both affirming the law, but also radically extending the law.

So if we, who are sinners, wish to become more righteous than the most righteous people of our society today, we first need to go to the bible to discover what is true righteousness.

The problem is that knowing what goodness is does not help us live good lives.  

So there is a second thing we need to do if we wish to be salt and light or if we wish our righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees.

2. We need to come to Jesus

Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matt 5:17)

Jesus is saying:
I am the one who gave you the OT.
I am the one who the OT is all about.
I am the one who alone can rightly interpret the OT
I am the one who lives out the OT as it is meant to be lived.

And if you want to know how to live the laws of the OT in the right way, you need to come to me. 

There is self-centred righteousness or there is God-centred righteousness.

Self-centred right-ness says, ‘I’m a good person, and I am going to prove that I am a good person by keeping the law and doing what is right’.

The problem is that we can’t because we are not sufficiently good people. We try hard, but be get exhausted and become weary. It’s very hard putting on a show all the time. So we lose whatever saltiness we had. We scurry under the basket to hide whatever light we had.

God-centred right-ness is different. It says, ‘I can’t possibly keep this law. I can’t possibly love like this. I’m weak, I’m sinful and I’m very messed up. But I know someone who can forgive me and help me – and I am going to him. And I am going to ask him to change my heart so that I both want to do what is right and so that I can begin to live what is right.’

God-centred rightness begins not when we give to God, but when we receive from God.

It begins when we go to Jesus and say, ‘I’m a cold dead wick. Please set me on fire so that I burn for you’.

One of the earliest Christian thinkers who lived in these lands, a man called Bede, wrote of how when God became flesh, when Jesus was born as a human being, it was as if our cold  human flesh was set on fire by God. It began to burn with an inner flame. 

And when we come to Jesus our heart can begin to burn with that inner flame.

It will not necessarily be dramatic.

John Ortberg wrote, ‘The main place you do the work of God is as you go along. It doesn’t have to be in high-profile, important positions. It will happen, if it happens at all, in the routine, unspectacular corners of your life. As you go along’.

If we come to Jesus, and remain with him, we will change. How we see God will change; how we see other people will change. Our priorities will change; so will how we meet disappointment or success; It will show when we lose it, how we lose it, and what we do when we’ve lost it; in the way we talk to customers, or pupils or colleagues, people in the shops or even to cold telephone callers; in a growing respect for every life and in how we treat our bodies and other peoples bodies; in how we are prepared to say sorry or speak the truth even if it is not to our advantage; in what we want to talk about; in how we spend our money or use our gifts and time.

And so if we listen to the bible, and if we come to Jesus, then we will be salt and we will be light, and glory will be given to God. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

How to live as a united church.

Ephesians 4:1-16

The book of Ephesians encourages us to look at other people with completely different eyes. 

On one side there were the Jews
On the other side you have Gentiles

Paul is saying that now, in Jesus, who was a Jew, but who died on the cross and then rose again, there is a new way of being, a new way of living.

If you are with Jesus, you are no longer to identify yourself as a Jew, or as a Gentile – but as a new person. ‘His purpose was to create in himself one new person, out of the two, thus making peace’ (Ephesians 2:15)

And you will realise that what Paul is saying here about Jew and Gentile can equally be applied to all our human distinctions – black/white, male/female, lived in Bury all life/newcomer, English/Scottish, Academy (two tier)/KEGS (three tier)

When we are with Jesus, we are no longer Jew/Gentile. We become new people with a new identity, a new purpose, and a new unity.

And in Ephesians 4, Paul is saying Guard this unity

‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (v3)

And he goes on to say, in verse 4:

‘There is one body’. 

There is a picture of Jesus which expresses this.

It is a picture of the face of Jesus, made up of 700 unique individual faces. When those individual faces are brought together they become part of something, someone who is so much bigger than them.
Paul is saying to the Ephesian Christians: ‘When you became believers, whether you were from a Jewish background or a Gentile background, you became part of this picture’. Guard it.

Don’t be the person who says, ‘I am going to be bigger than you’, because when that happens people won’t see Jesus
Don’t be the people who say, ‘well we don’t agree with you on this, so we need to airbrush you out’, because when that happens people won’t see Jesus.

The visible church is dividedWe have St Peter’s on one side of the Hyndman Centre car park, Westgate on the other; the Cathedral on one side of the great churchyard, St Mary’s on the other and St Edmunds just down the roadAnd yes, we do have our own distinctive shapes and styles and beliefs; we may hold to things that the other cannot really agree with – but in the end there is only one Church, one body of Jesus.

I am aware that there are questions of boundaries and we can’t ignore them; I am aware that we may think that some others are profoundly wrong, and we need to hold on to the convictions that we have, but we also need to be very careful before we personally draw the line between who is in and who is out.

If we think our purpose is to identify those people who claim to be in but should be out, then we have really missed the point. Rather our aim should be to draw those who are definitely out, in.

There is only one body. And it is God who ultimately knows who is in and who is out.

There is one Spirit: The same Holy Spirit who came on the Jews at Pentecost came on the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house.

We can liken the Spirit to air. It is around us and we are in it. But it is also in us, and it gives us life. So, in the same way, the Spirit also lives in the Christian and gives us life. But the Christian also lives in the realm, kingdom, arena of the Spirit.

We share one Spirit. And there is something 
mystical, indefinable that happens when two believers meet together – even if they come from very different backgrounds. The Spirit who is in one calls out to God the Father; the Spirit who is the other calls out to God the Father; and there is so often a recognition between believers: Spirit calls to Spirit.

We have one hope.
It is the hope of sharing in the resurrection from the dead, of sharing Christ’s glory.

We have one Lord.
The earliest Christian creed was ‘Jesus is Lord’. It was the single statement that defined the early believers. Jewish believers said Jesus is Lord; Gentile believers said Jesus is Lord. At times they disagreed about what that meant in practice, but they still had that common confession.
They followed Jesus. They walked the Jesus way. They seriously wanted to do what Jesus wanted them to do.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit”.

As Christians we have one faith.
We don’t put our trust in being good people; or in money; or in ourselves; or in a particular style of worship that we prefer. What unites us is that we put our trust in a person who lived 2000 years ago, who we believe is the eternal Son of God, who died for us and who rose from the dead. Because of him we have forgiveness. Because of him we have our hope.

We have one baptism.
There was only one mark that identified the early Christians. And it was an invisible mark. Everybody who confessed Jesus as Lord had been baptised.

Now some of us may have been baptised or christened as babies by sprinkling; others may have been baptised as adults by dunking. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of us has been baptised, and has had a common experience. We have died to ourselves, and we have come alive to Jesus. In our baptism, and I am not talking about the event of our baptism, but in the reality of living out our baptism, we have come down from the heights of where we were – and we have come into the pit with Jesus

And of course we have one God and Father of all – it almost certainly means that he is God and Father of all things. He is over all, through all and in all. He is in Jews, in Gentiles. He is over them, even if they do not recognise him. He works through them and in them, even if they do not recognise him. Jews think that God is on their side; Gentiles think that God is on their side. Christians recognise that God is not on either side, but that he longs to draw all to him – whether Jew or Gentile - and discover that he is bigger than Jew or Gentile.

When we are here, we already have an amazing unity.

It is a unity which is expressed particularly when different churches meet together for worship. (Churches Together service); friend at Taize; working together here in town – town pastors, BCY, Sporting 87, CAP, fair trade and the St John’s centre.  

But we are also called to guard this unity

Four significant virtues that we need to develop (v2):

a) Humility – not thinking more of yourself than you should.

Conflict happens when one person thinks that they are more important than another, or when we think we are always right and other people are always wrong. 

King Saul is hunting down David because he is jealous of him. When they do meet, David says to Saul, ‘Why is the King so uptight about me. I am nothing. I am a dead dog’. If we are to keep the unity in the church we need more dead dogs - people who realise that, compared to others, we are nobody.

b) Gentleness – a gentle person is someone who could crush another person, but who does not. Indeed they do the opposite.They try to build up the other person. A gentle person does not fly off the handle when another person messes up. They recognise how precious the other person is.

This is not to say that a gentle person will never act forcefully; Jesus acted forcefully when he turned over the tables in the temple. But we are to be known as people who use force only when it really is the last resort.

Unity is broken when people start to think that they can force others to do what they want, because they are stronger or have more clout or can shout louder.

Jesus, we are told, did not break a bruised reed. He ruled not by standing over others, but by kneeling down before others and washing their feet.

c) Patience – unity is broken when we lose patience with each other, when we demand recompense immediately someone sins against us.

We need to ask God to give us this patience, this ability to wait, to recognise that God’s time is not our time, that other people do not become saints over night. The word that is used here is particularly used of being patient with others when they wrongus. It is about not writing them off immediately

d) Bearing with one another in love:

Love is the gift of God, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

When we allow God’s Spirit to work in us, we begin to see other people as God sees them. We begin to delight in them for who they are: someone made in the image of God. But love does not settle with simply accepting people as they are. Love sees them as who they could become as a fully mature follower of Jesus and member of the body of Christ.

William Temple said, "We must be treated as what we actually are but always with a view to what in God's purpose we are destined to become."

St Augustine saidthat we love our enemy now in order that they might become our friend in Christ.

In Verses 7-16 Paul develops this idea that we are one body.

We have different gifts; they come from God; the gifts Paul stresses here are the foundational gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. When the church is based on the word of God others are released for service. And when we use our gifts and serve God in other people, we will reach a unity in faith and in knowledge (verse 13).

That is why unity will come not when we talk about it, but when we worship and pray and serve and witness together.

I remember when I was at theological college. There were students who I considered to be heretics! But then we all went on a mission together, and I was astonished to see these "heretics" preaching Jesus with far more clarity and power and conviction than I ever could.

So I do note the stress on the fact that what is important here is what we do. V12: ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service’. And v16, ‘As each part does its work’

This body is like a choir. Each voice is unique and necessary. If you weren’t there you would be missed (probably!). On your own, in your bath, you are good. But together you can be so much more. You can create amazing harmony.

So Paul is saying to the Jewish Christians: you need the Gentile Christians. He is saying to the Gentile Christians: you need the Jewish believers. It will be hard; there will be conflict; for them it was over circumcision and what you ate. For us, it is about music or worship style, about when we should be baptised, about ways to interpret the bible, and gay marriage or women bishops. And it is usually not that one side is right and the other is wrong, but that as the people of God come together under the authority of the word of God, with the default position that we recognise each other as part of the body (even if we are convinced 'they' are wrong), so we often discover that there is another way. The heavenly conductor will tell us to listen to each other, to sing quieter or louder or correct us when we are singing the wrong tune or out of time. And when we listen to him, and do what he says, there will be harmony.