Saturday, 27 September 2014

Considering others better than yourselves

Philippians 2:1-13

I wonder how you see yourself in comparison to other people

It is all about me. Other people exist to serve me. 

Of course, very few of us would admit that this is how we see ourselves, but if I look at myself then I know that this is my default position. This is how I operate. 

And in fact the world encourages us to live here. It tells us that we can build the universe around us, that we are worth it, that we must assert our rights.

And even if we are in pain - physical or emotional - then the 'I' gets even bigger, and other people get smaller. It is much easier to be gracious and humble before other people when we are feeling well! And one of the astonishing things about Jesus is that as he hangs on the cross in excruciating agony, he thinks of others - of his mother, of the criminal beside him, even of the people crucifying him. 

Perhaps it should be not like that, but like this. We are all equal. It is politically correct and it is morally correct. Jesus says, 'Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others' (interests, by the way, does not appear in the original. The original says, 'Each of you should look not only to your own ..., but also to others': so 'interests' is a filler. It could include your possessions, well being, comfort, salvation - whatever). In other words, it is another version of the golden rule: 'Do to the other person what you would have them do to you'. Or, and Jesus put it another way as well, 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. 

But if that is how we are to behave to others, Paul is suggesting that we should have a different picture in our minds: we need to think of ourselves in a different way: 'in humility consider others better than yourselves' (v3) 

This is radical!

It is not saying that we are to consider others as being able to do everything else better than us. There are some who will always be hopeless at mathematics and there will be some who are genii at mathematics. And it would be foolish to ask someone who is hopeless to make the calculations for a lunar landing; there will be some who will always have 2 left feet, and there are some who are incredibly gifted - and it would be foolish not to play your best team in the cup final. 

Nor is it saying that we are to consider others as morally better than ourselves - although one of the interesting things is that as as we grow in our Christian life, we become increasingly aware of how sinful we are. Outwardly our actions appear good (we are great conformists), but we become increasingly alert to how corrupt our motives are. So Paul could write, 'I am the worst of sinners'. And many of the saints would see themselves as corrupt beyond imagination. I am told that on one occasion John Stott was introduced to an audience in the most glowing of terms. He thanked the person, and then said to the audience, 'But if you could see into my heart, you would spit in my face'. 

And it is not saying that we need to be like Uriah Heep: 'I'm dreadfully 'umble'. Because he kept on saying it, he wasn't. Telling people he was dreadfully 'umble was actually his way of asserting himself over others. 

But what Paul is saying is that we are to consider other people, irrespective of their or our gifts, irrespective of their or our achievement, irrespective of their or our age, irrespective of their or our education, not as people who are equal to us, but as people who are worthy of greater honour than ourselves.

As I said, this is radical stuff. 

It is not saying that you should be a doormat and allow others to walk all over you: allowing another person to walk over you is not treating them with the respect or dignity that they deserve. 
It is not saying that you should not exercise your gifts.
But it is saying that you should use your life and your gifts in the service of the other, to build them up so that they become the man or woman who God created them to be. It is to be their servant, not for their sake, but for God's sake. And it is to treat them as someone who is worthy of greater honour than you. 

This was a major part of Jesus' teaching.

Jesus talks about going to a banquet: He sees how people jostle for the most important places. And he says to them, 'Don't go to the highest place, because when you are asked to move down to a lower place, you will be shamed. Instead, choose the lower place'. 

There was a lovely moment in Downton Abbey last week when a delegation from the village arrives at the house. Lord Grantham thinks that they are going to ask him to chair the committee setting up a world war 1 memorial. He is rather puffed up about it. The delegation arrive and instead ask Carson, his butler, to chair the committee.  

And when Jesus spoke about greatness, he talks of how the world considers greatness in terms of lording it over others. But greatness in God's eyes is very different. It is about being a servant. And he uses a child as a visual aid. He puts a child in the centre. He says, 'Society may consider this child to be a nobody, but you need to be people who welcome and who honour 'nobodies'.

And of course there was the occasion when he knelt down and washed his disciples feet. And he said, 'If I your Lord and Master have done this, you also should do this to one another'.

What an amazing society it would be if everyone considered the next person as worthy of more honour than themselves. If teachers considered their children in this way; if children their parents, if employers their employees, if customers treated shop keepers in such a way.

So how do we get there? How do we become people who consider others as better, as worthy of more honour than ourselves?

And here Paul gives us three steps

1. We look at Jesus and we imitate him. 

'Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus' (v5)

Jesus knew who he was. He knew that he was the eternal Son of God, equal to God - but he does not take advantage of that. 

It is so easy to take advantage of our position and status and wealth: to jump the queue, to get our case looked at 'sympathetically', to get preferential treatment. 

If anyone could have done it, if anyone had the right to do it, it was Jesus. He could have had the most wonderful life on earth, that would have gone on for ever, with people doing exactly what he wanted, and never needing to fear that it would be taken away from him. 

But he gave it all up. In obedience to God, he became a fully human person like us. He was not born in a palace but in a cowshed. He began his life as a refugee. He had astonishing powers and abilities, and yet he gave up everything in order to take up the life of an itinerant preacher, without income or home. He chose to give up the possibility of having another human person love him in a unique way or having a family. And he ended up giving his life - it wasn't taken from him, he chose to give it up - for your sake and for my sake. 

'He became obedient to death - even death on a cross' (v8)

He died for us, so that we might become the men and women who God created us to be.

So look at the example of Jesus. If he was prepared to give up the riches of heaven for our sake, should we not be prepared to give up our kitsch for the sake of obedience to him and love for others?

2. We allow God to work in us to change us.

God has given us the desire and the power to live here. 

V12f. 'Therefore my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.'

God is at work in you. 

The reason that you are here today, the reason that you begin to desire to live like Jesus is because God has given you that desire. The reason that you have the power to begin to live in a God-pleasing way is because God has given you that power. 

Your salvation is like a seed. God planted that seed in you and you became a Christian. 

It is incredibly precious. It is the seed which will transform you so that you will become like Jesus Christ. It is the seed that will transform you to have an inner beauty and an outer radiance. It is the seed which will take you through death. It is the seed of eternal life. 

Imagine if someone gives you a vase. They give it to you. It is yours. It is beautiful. You pick it up and you hold it. And then, as they walk away, they say, 'By the way, that is a Ming dynasty vase and at its last estimation it was worth $21 million'. You would hold that vase with fear and trembling.

The salvation that we have been given is far more precious than that. That is why we 'work it out' with fear and trembling. 

Motyer writes in his commentary on Philippians, 'There is a fear of God of which we know all too little and which we lose at our peril – a godly fear, growing out of recognition of weakness and of the power of temptation, a filial dread of offending God. This is not the fear of the lost sinner before the Holy one, but the fear of a true child before the most loving of all fathers; not the fear of what he might do to us, but of the hurt we might do to him.'

We need to allow this salvation that we possess to be worked out in our lives, to transform us into the image of the eternal Son of God. 

And practically that means listening to God and to his Spirit, and being led by the Spirit. It means spending time with him, and being obedient to him. 

Paul speaks about the beginning of the work of the Spirit in the believers life in verse 1: encouragement, comfort, knowing the fellowship of the Spirit, sparks of tenderness and compassion. And it is the Spirit who is in you, who - if you are led by the Spirit - will transform us so that we become like-minded (sharing in the mind of Christ), having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 

And it is the Spirit in us who will begin to change us so that we do not see the world from our perspective, but  from his perspective. We do not see other people from our perspective, but from his perspective.

Someone said, 'The main evidence that we are growing in Christ is not exhilarating prayer experiences, but steadily increasing, humble love for other people

3. We live in hope 

The man or woman who humbles him or herself before another will be exalted. Not necessarily here and now, but there and then. 

It is what I call the divine V.

Jesus comes down. He is obedient. He humbles himself. He dies - on a cross. 
Therefore God exalts him

Do you wish to be vindicated, to be lifted up, to be glorified? 

Then consider the person next to you. Don't look at them, because you will get embarrassed. They may be your child or boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife or parent or friend. They may be someone who you do not know. 

Can you begin to think of them as worthy of more honour than you. 
Can you begin to serve them so that they become the person God created them to be, so that they discover their God given dignity? 

And as you put yourself here for the sake of other people, so God will raise you here with Jesus.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Learning how to disagree graciously

This is one of those passages which, when we first read it, we think ‘what on earth is going on’, but then discover that there is so much for us.

The issue that was tearing the church in Rome apart at the time was the question of special days and food.

There were some Christians, probably from a Jewish background, who were vegetarian. This was probably not a health decision, or a decision made because of the inhumane treatment of animals. It was a decision that was made because most meat sold in the market had been slaughtered in pagan temples and dedicated to pagan Gods, and so many people felt they could not eat it. 

And these Jewish-Christians also wanted to keep special Jewish days. They said Jesus is the Messiah who came to fulfil the law, so all those special days that we had as Jews – the fast days and the feast days, and the Sabbath – are still special, and we want to observe them.

And then there were other Christians, probably from a Gentile background. They argued that Jesus had declared all food clean, and that everything that exists can be enjoyed as a gift from God, provided it is used according to the word of God, and it is used with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). And they would argue that Christ has power over all demons, and you have nothing to fear if meat has been offered to demons. So they ate meat.

And they argued that now that Jesus had risen from the dead, all days are sacred to God. All days are Christmas, when we are to celebrate his coming to earth as a baby; all days are Good Friday, when we celebrate his dying on the cross, and all days are Easter and Sunday - when we celebrate his rising from the dead. Why make one day more special than any other?

It might seem nothing to us, but for the people involved it was hot stuff!

On the one side you had the people who were saying, ‘How could someone who eats meat that has been dedicated to a demon possibly be a Christian? How can someone who so clearly disrespects the Sabbath be a true follower of Jesus the Messiah? How can I have fellowship with them?’

On the other side you had the people who were saying, ‘How can someone who is so bound up by the law be a real spirit-filled Christian?  They need all that stuff to help them in their faith. They are so ‘weak in faith’. We will form the ‘strong in faith’ freedom in Christ church.

Sound familiar?

Those may not be our specific issues: but there are so many others. How should one behave on Sunday, style of worship, choice of music, use of liturgy, ways of understanding the bible? I haven't even touched on the big ones: women bishops or gay marriage.

These verses don’t answer the issues, but they do help us think through how we disagree.  
So how does Paul help these believers, help us to disagree?

1. Paul challenges us to accept each other.

Paul has been speaking about love. In 13:8 he has written, ‘owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’. Love, he says, ‘does no wrong to a neighbour’.

Now he is applying it to the church.

His argument is this: since God has accepted you, and since God has accepted them - you need to accept each other.

'Accept those whose faith is weak', he says to those who are 'strong in faith'. (14.1) Accept them because 'God has accepted them' (v3).

We need to hear this.

There are often times when we can be less welcoming and more judgmental and condemning of fellow Christians of a different shade, than we are of people who are of no faith. And yet we have so much more in common with them.

And when he says ‘accept’, he is not just saying 'grudgingly acknowledge them'.  He is not just saying, ‘don’t judge or criticise them’. He is not just saying, ‘let them get on with what they are doing and you do your own thing’.

It is better translated as ‘welcome’: welcome them. Delight in them. Be pleased to associate with them. Invite them into your homes and families and lives.

Recognise them as your brothers and sisters in Christ. Realise that when Jesus died and rose again, he died and rose again for you and for them (v9). Recognise that you are part of one body with them, that you need them and that they need you. Your destiny and your glory is tied up with their destiny and glory.

That has practical implications. It means that ‘the strong in faith’ need to make compromises for the weak in faith. If eating meat hurts them, then even though you are free to eat meat, don’t eat meat.

And for us: I find it very hard to think of specific illustrations without making people think that I am having a go at them! So I won’t. But what I am saying is that because we are called to accept each other, we have to be willing to compromise some of our most cherished convictions for the sake of love.

And when we do compromise, we do it with a willing heart. We still won't like what we are doing, and we may even feel that it is wrong. But what we are saying is that 'You matter more to me than my opinion on this particular subject'.

2. Paul reminds us that we are servants of God.

He writes, ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand’ (v4)

And he goes on to say that because Jesus died and rose again for us, ‘If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die we die to The Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord' (v8)

That is the challenge to us.

Yes, we are called beloved children of God; yes, we are called friends of God, but we do also need to remind ourselves that we are called to be servants of God.

In one pretty stark story Jesus talks of the servant who has been working in the field all day. When he comes in, Jesus says, he still has work to do. He needs to get himself ready and serve dinner to his master. And can he expect to receive any thanks for what he has done? No, says Jesus, all he can say is that he is an unworthy servant who is doing his duty.

So when we come to argue about issues with others who profess that Jesus is Lord - to do with church practice, or church building, or style of worship, or sexuality, or politics, or the shape of ministry - we need to remind ourselves that we are first servants of God - and that we are called to treat the other, if they profess to follow Jesus as Lord, as fellow servants of God.

And we need to remind ourselves that because we are servants of God, it is not about me: about my autonomy, my rights, my aesthetic preferences, my status, my interests. So often our arguments are not about what the bible teaches or about what is best for mission or what is most pleasing to God. We claim that they are. But what they are really about is me: what I prefer, or what I want, or what is in my interests or the interests of my group.

The people who I most respect, and who carry the most authority, are those who find themselves arguing for things that are not in their natural self-interest. It might be the person arguing for the rights of a group that stands in direct opposition to them: the Christian who advocates the rights of Muslims in this country. The person who has a homosexual tendency who argues for a celibate lifestyle; the person who loves the BCP who argues for contemporary worship - or vice versa; the person with wealth arguing for higher taxes, or the person on benefits who argues for benefit cuts. The person who has a dreadful and painful terminal illness arguing against euthanasia.

I'm not saying that that makes them right - but I am saying that they have begun to realise that it is not about them. And as Christians they have begun to realise that they are first and foremost servants of God.

3. Paul reminds us that it is God who will judge

It is so easy to pass judgement on another.

“They are not Spirit-filled", "they don't have the full gospel", "they are not Word-centered", "they are liturgical", "they are catholic". Within the Anglican communion there are slurs like: "they are high church", "they are low church", "they are happy clappy”.

There is the story of the minister who said, ‘There are only two proper Christians in my church, and I’m not convinced about my wife’.

But Paul challenges us: 'Who are you to judge someone else's servant?'(v4) .. 'You then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God's judgement seat .. we will all give an account of ourselves to the Lord' (v10,12)

Of course you will have your own convictions of what is right and wrong in the Christian life, but please my dear friends be very very cautious before passing judgement on another Christian - on their standing before God, on their work for the Lord, on their obedience or disobedience. You are standing on very shaky ground. At least begin by taking your shoes off. There is, as CS Lewis said, a spiritual responsibility at times to mind your own business.

Please don't get me wrong in all of this.

I am not saying that there should not be difference of opinion or practice. Of course there will be and at times those differences will be quite significant. The differences in Rome were pretty significant. We may hold passionately to some views. I note that Paul here speaks of people being 'fully convinced' in their own mind that what they are doing they do 'for the Lord' (v5).

And of course there will be times when we need to exercise discipline within the Church. There were times when Paul seriously challenged the more legalistic Christians, especially when they began to say that a person had to be circumcised and had to keep the Sabbath and had to eat certain food. They were, he said, preaching another gospel, a gospel that was 'no gospel'.

What I am saying is that - when it comes to issues that are not directly related to who Jesus is, and to how we can be saved - we need to exercise caution, certainly when passing judgement on other believers.

As someone said, "It is tough to praise God if you are busy passing judgment on other people.”

 And we need to allow welcoming love to trump some of our other convictions.

I have to say that that is one of the reasons why I am a convinced Anglican Christian. I wish to be part of a Church which takes its stand on the bible, and on the historic creeds of the church, which tries to maintain a link with the practices and worship of the church of the past, without slavishly following that past, but which also seeks to embrace and to include as many people of as many shades of Christianity within the arms of its fellowship as it can. Of course that means there are many in the communion with whom I profoundly disagree - and there will be one or two out there who may disagree with me!
But while we profess the historic creeds, and while we call Jesus 'Lord' and seek to live as servants of God - we try to work together as brothers and sisters in Christ, to worship God and build the kingdom of God.

But irrespective of what Church we are part of, if we are to take Paul's instruction to the Roman Christians seriously, then we need to think carefully about those whom we disagree with.

Of course we will disagree – and we will disagree on things that we think are pretty fundamental. But in our disagreement,
1. We need to allow welcoming love to trump our differences on what Paul describes as 'disputable matters': and for me the things that really matter is who Jesus is, and the fact that we are saved by faith in Him alone. You may disagree with that!

2. We need to remind ourselves that we are servants of God: we do what we do 'for the Lord', and we give thanks for his mercy.

3. We need to remind ourselves that it is not our duty to judge our Christian brother and sister – that is God’s business. And we remind ourselves that one day each of us will stand before God. 

Thursday, 11 September 2014

How dare you not forgive?

Matthew 18:21-35

John Grisham, in On Sycamore Row, writes of the father of two brothers, Kyle and Bo, who have been killed by a drunk driver. He visits the lawyer who represents the guilty man’s wife.

The dad says, “Are you a Christian, Jake?”
“I am. Sometimes more of one than others, but I’m trying.”
“I thought so. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches the importance of forgiveness. He knows we’re human and our natural tendency is to seek revenge, to strike back, to condemn those who hurt us, but this is wrong. We’re supposed to forgive, always. So I’d like for you to tell Lettie and her family, and especially her husband, that Evelyn and I forgive Simeon for what he did. We’ve prayed about this. We’ve spent time with our minister. And we cannot allow ourselves to live the rest of our days filled with hatred and ill will. We forgive him, Jake. Can you tell them?”

Forgiveness is something that is very hard, but it is also an essential part of the Christian life.

We are commanded to forgive.

Indeed this passage is quite blunt. It is saying, ‘We have been forgiven so much. How dare we not forgive someone who is in our debt’.

Our problem is simple: we think that forgiveness is very hard.

Six questions to consider [groups or sit quietly and think these through]

I find it hard to forgive because …

I would find it easier to forgive if …
(eg. the other person says sorry, the other person is punished, I never see them again)

Forgiveness is easier for some people because …

One thing I cannot forgive is …
(eg. Dante reserves the deepest, coldest part of hell for those people who have betrayed guests.)

Some things are easier to forgive like …  

I can say I forgive you but …  (eg. colleague who owed me £50. I said I forgave him, but continued to feel resentment)

One thing the bible teaches is that when we forgive, we are not saying that what the other person did doesn’t matter. We are leaving justice to God. cf Romans 12:20

The story Jesus tells in Matthew 18 seems to imply that our problem is not that forgiveness is hard, but rather:

We do not believe that we have been forgiven much.
Or we are ungrateful for the forgiveness we have received

We think that we are basically nice people who do nice things
We think that we have earned the good things in life. It’s the current mantra of secular spirituality: ‘Be nice to yourself. You deserve it’. Beware the person who thinks that they deserve good.

There are good reasons to forgive: 
  • We don’t know the motives of others, 
  • It helps society work, 
  • It liberates us, 
  • It makes us bigger people. 

Unforgiveness can be so destructive: Dennis told of his dad who never spoke with his brother. When he asked his dad, Why? The answer was, ‘I can’t remember. I just know he hurt me so I don’t want to speak to him’.

But the main reason the bible commands us to forgive others is because we have been forgiven.

Jesus tells another story of two people. He asks one of the religious leaders. One person is forgiven £1 million; the other is forgiven £1000. Who, he says, will love the master the more?  The answer came back: the one who was forgiven £1 million. He has more reason to be grateful to his master. Yes, said Jesus, and the person who realises how much he or she has been forgiven will love God and live forgiveness more.

Perhaps we do not realise how much we have been forgiven. In that case, could I suggest that we forgive as an act of faith. I live by faith in the God who has forgiven me.

Forgiveness is a decision: I often repeat the story of the woman who, when asked about something that someone had done to badly hurt her in the past, said ‘I’m not sure what you are talking about. I distinctly remember forgetting that’.
Of course that decision to forgive will need to be repeated

Forgiveness is an action: Corrie Ten Boom preaching in Germany about forgiveness. Her sister had died because of the brutal treatment she had experienced from the guards in Ravensbruck camp. A man came up to her at the end to shake her hands: ‘I was a guard in Ravensbruck. Thank you for preaching about forgiveness’. And then he held out his hand for her to shake. She said that her heart and her hand felt like lead. But she made the choice, to raise her hand and to shake his hand. And as she did, she said, it was as if a bolt of electricity passed between her and him. 

So forgiveness is about a decision that is then put into action: it is about choosing to shake hands, to write the letter, to pick up the phone, to drop the case, to let go of the money.

I recall A who was involved in a dispute over a will with her brother. He was trying to get about £200k from her part of the bequest. She could have fought him, and would probably have won. But she made a choice to let it go, and instructed her solicitors not to pursue the money.

And sometimes we need to pray for the opportunity to do good to the person who has hurt us.

The thing that worries me about this story which Jesus tells is his last comment: ‘So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’.

So far I have been speaking about forgiveness as obedience. 
Jesus seems to require forgiveness as something that comes from in here. Forgiveness is a feeling.

May I suggest that if the feeling of forgiveness is not yet there (and in most cases it won't be), we trust that as we give the situation and the person to God, and to his justice, recognising how much we have been forgiven, and as we choose to forgive, in time we will begin to feel forgiveness. And that is OK.

So I finish where I began. If you are a Christian. If you realise that you need the forgiveness and mercy of God – and you have received that – how dare you, how dare I, not forgive those who have hurt me?