Thursday, 29 January 2015

How precious is your faith?

2 Peter 1.1-4

How precious is your faith?

What is precious to you? A person, home, freedom, career, possession, a ring!

Peter writes here of his faith as being something that is precious.

1. It is precious because it is the gift of God

Notice how he writes, ‘To those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours’ (v1)

Our faith is gift. If there were no Jesus, if he had not come from heaven to be born as a human being, if there had been no sacrificial death on the cross, no resurrection – then there could be no Christian faith.

And God has done it all.

We did nothing to deserve life; we did nothing to deserve God’s mercy; we did nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness or acceptance; we did nothing to deserve the fact that God calls us his friends, or that God pours out on us his Holy Spirit, or that God gives us the hope of eternal life.

I don’t know whether you think the same way as me. But at about 5.30 – especially on a cold, dark evening, I think, ‘Oh no. I’ve got to go to church’ (and it is probably easier for me. I’ve got to! I’m paid to!). But when I get here, and when I start to say the words, to declare the truths, to sing or listen to the worship, or when I come to receive communion – then nearly always something happens. There are moments when heaven is opened and He is there. And that is all I need.

And it is at moments like that, when we realise that this faith really is a phenomenal gift. It is so precious. And we long that others would come and receive this gift.

2. It is precious because it is about knowledge of God.

Knowledge of God is important here.

v2: ‘Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord’

v3: ‘His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him ..’

(it comes again in v8 and in 2.20)

This is not really knowledge about God, but personal knowledge of God. Faith is not just about believing a set of facts (e.g. I believe that Jesus existed, he was born of a virgin, he rose from the dead, he gives us his Holy Spirit, that 2 Peter was written by Peter). It is more than that. This is trusting faith – like a child trusting a parent to catch them if they fall.

At one level we can know a bit about God. But at a deeper level how can we, with our human minds, understand the creator of time and space? We can’t really understand him or know him.

Paul describes him as ‘The only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see’ (1 Timothy 6.21).

But if we cannot fully know about God, we can know him through trusting him.

This faith is about holding on to the hand that is offered to us. It is about knowing, not necessarily here in our head, but here in our heart.

When I went to Sometimes on Sunday [a group we have for people with learning disabilities], this was very made real for me. There was a lady there and if I had asked her about various doctrines or what happened when Jesus died on the cross, she would have looked at me as if I was mad. But instead she saw my dog collar, looked at me with shining eyes and said, ‘I love Jesus. I love Jesus’.

And actually we get to know God more in this way, when we are prepared to trust him and allow him to lead us through the dark places of life: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me’.

And the more we know God, and the more we know Jesus, the more we know grace and peace and everything that we need to live a God pleasing life.

That is why this is such a precious faith

3. It is precious because it rests on the precious promises of God.

 I’m sure you noticed that. Precious faith (v1), precious promises (v4).

 ‘Through these [his goodness and glory] he has given us his very great and precious promises ..’ (v4)

We’ve mentioned some of them. The promise that he will never turn us away if we come to him, of forgiveness, that if we pray as part of the family of Jesus he will answer our prayers (he will not necessarily give us what we think we desire but he will give us our deepest desires), that if we seek him he will make us fruitful, that he will never leave us. We have the precious promises about God’s word, about the Holy Spirit, about the church, about eternal life.

And there is the promise in these verses that as we get to know him, he will give us everything we need for life and for godliness.

4. It is precious because it enables our heart to be changed.

We have just read one of the most remarkable verses in the bible.

When we put our faith, our trust, in the precious promises of God, God changes us. He does not simply change our mind or thinking, but he changes our very being and our very nature. We ‘participate in the divine nature’ (v4)

People have written papers and books on this verse. It is a significant verse in Eastern Orthodox thinking.

I think it is saying the same thing as Ephesians 3.19, where Paul prays that we may know the love of God that surpasses knowledge – ‘that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’.

God will change us from the inside. He will change who we fundamentally are. He will change our nature so that instead of desiring the things that this world offers – money, sex, power – the things that basically lead to destruction, we will begin to desire the things of His world: the things that lead to eternal life: love, joy, and peace. And we will desire, above all things, to know Him.  

People sometimes say to Christians, ‘I envy your faith’.

I wonder at times how true that is. They may envy the fact that we seem to have a hope, an insurance policy for death, a second family in the church and the sense that someone is with us even in the dark places.

But if they truly do envy our faith, then perhaps they would really seek faith, and seek God. Someone on Wednesday told me of a friend who said exactly that, and who then made it their business to seek faith. And God met with them.

Sadly I think many people are not like that. They like some of the benefits that a faith can bring, but they don’t think they really need to change. They are not willing to allow God to change them.

And how precious is your faith to you?

If we have truly realised just how precious our faith is, we would work hard to keep our faith alive. We would work hard in the boring times, in the daily routine and discipline of everyday living.

Jesus told a story of 10 bridesmaids waiting for the coming of the groom. It was a long wait. They began to go to sleep. But 5 were wise. They had their oil lamps with them, and they kept a source of spare oil. They were ready for when the action began.

How precious is your faith? Is it sufficiently precious for you to guard it and grow it, to spend time daily with God and his word, to come regularly to worship with his people and to receive communion, and to be obedient in the small things of life. Don’t neglect it. Don’t let other things overwhelm it.


It really is so very precious.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

on spiritual gifts and speaking in tongues

1 Corinthians 12.1-13

We are looking for the next few weeks at 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 and at spiritual gifts.

Paul does not want us to be ‘uninformed’ about the gifts

1. He begins this chapter by speaking of the heart of the spiritual person.

1 Cor 12.1 literally says ‘And now concerning the spiritual (people, gifts, things)’

People talk a great deal about being spiritual. It can mean that they are into yoga or dowsing or Gregorian chant or angels or they claim to be particularly sensitive or open to the world beyond our senses.

But that is not what Paul understands here as spiritual.

At the centre of the true spiritual person is a heart that worships Jesus Christ as Lord (v3).

What we have here is a line. At one end are those people who declare that Jesus is cursed. They look at the Jesus Christ who we read about in the bible, [they see one who allowed himself to be crucified in love for sinners, who offers forgiveness and invites his followers to live forgiveness, who speaks of obedience to and love for his Father in Heaven] – and they mock him and they curse him.

Charlie Hebdo has produced some mocking cartoons not just of the prophet Mohammed but also of Jesus. They are not the first. There is an early C2nd cartoon of a figure with an ass’s head hanging on a cross, and underneath are the words, Alexamenos worships his God.

At the other end of the line are those people who have been made alive by the Spirit. They look at the Jesus Christ who we read about in the bible, and they see one who in love for them, even though they were a sinner, died for them. And in gratitude they have asked him to come and live in their lives through his Spirit and they live for him and they worship him. They cry out ‘Jesus is Lord’.

[Nobody, says Paul, can do that if they do not have the Spirit of God living in them. In a few minutes we will say the creed, and we will say ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord’, and we can only say that with integrity through the Holy Spirit.]

The truly spiritual person is the person who has bowed down before Jesus Christ and said, ‘You are my Lord’. I will trust you and I will obey. I will go wherever you lead me, and do whatever you show me

But the declaration Jesus is Lord is not just a statement of belief. It is also a declaration of worship. So we sing ‘Jesus is Lord, creations voice proclaims it’.

2. He talks of varieties of spiritual gifts, services and activities.

I struggled with these verses, because I found myself trying to work out what is the difference between a natural gift and a spiritual gift.

There are some who say that natural gifts are what we have received through genetics and/or training (good at maths, at music, at running, at speaking or teaching) – and that spiritual gifts are what we receive when we become believers and the Holy Spirit comes into us.

I’m not convinced by that distinction, and when I looked again at these verses I find that they speak of particular gifts, but they also speak of ways of operating.

‘There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone’ (vv4-6)

In other words Paul is speaking not only of gifts, but of the very way that God works in the person who calls Jesus ‘Lord’.

So if we have bowed before Jesus as Lord, then the Holy Spirit will both shape how we use the gifts and talents that we already have, and the Holy Spirit will also give us new gifts – gifts that it seems are specifically to do with building up each other as we worship God, as we call Jesus ‘Lord’.

You have a gift of music. We talk of it as a gift, because you did nothing to deserve it. As a child you develop and grow that gift through practice. You use the gift because it makes you feel good; you feel fulfilled when you play; people praise you for the way that you play. At times you use your gift for the community. You go into a dementia unit and play for them. And then you meet God, and you call Jesus Lord, and you give him every part of yourself. And you begin to think, ‘How can I use my gift to help worship him?’ How can I allow God to both use my gift and to work in and through my gift?

I’ve spoken before about the difference between Madonna and Dana. Both were asked if they prayed. Madonna said, Yes. She prayed. She got her crew around her before a concert in a group huddle and she prayed, ‘God make them love me’. Dana said that before she went on stage she would pray, ‘God, glorify your name through me today’.

I’ve spoken about music. But there are many others.

I think of Jon Warnock, and his ability with football. And how God has taken and used that for Sporting 87 – and how he has taken the willingness of Christians to commit themselves to coaching the football teams, for Christ.

And for those of us who are both tone-deaf and have two left feet, the bible speaks of gifts such as hospitality, leadership, administration, service. They are gifts, natural abilities or talents that we already have, but when we become Christians we bring them under the Lordship of Christ. We recognise that they really are a gift – a gift from him – and we use them for Jesus and we use them in his strength

3. What about the new gifts that we might receive (vv8-10)? 

When we become Christians God gives us new gifts.

This is not the definitive list.

Paul is trying to correct an over-emphasis in the Corinthian church on speaking in tongues.

And as we read the commentaries we realise that people disagree on some of what these are.

But as we read verses 7-11 I wonder whether we are to think of a small group, meeting to learn and pray and worship together.

And as they talk about the passage someone has done some preparation, and they share what they have learnt. Another comes up with an insight that makes sense of it all; as they pray another speaks something that they could not possibly have known – but it is spot on relevant for one of the people there.

Another then says, ‘I think we should be praying specifically for this’. Others say, ‘But that is impossible’. ‘No’, she insists, ‘I think God is going to do something here’. Another person prays for someone to be healed and, even to their astonishment, that person is healed. Maybe another tells the group about something astonishing that happened during the week: they prayed and God worked in an incredibly powerful way.

Another speaks and says that they think God is speaking and wants to say this.

This is the Word of God. But that does not mean that God does not speak in other ways. Prophecy is the speaking of the word of God into a particular situation. But we do need to be careful here, and humble. I like the story of the person who said. God says, ‘I will raise you up in a fiery chariot like I raised Isaiah’. There was a bit of a pause and then the person added, ‘God says, ‘I got it wrong, it was Elijah’.

Maybe we should be saying, ‘I think God may be saying this ..’. Of course prophecy can be abused or trivialised, but we must not reject it.  And don’t dismiss preaching. At its best, preaching is prophetic. It is about the applying of the word of God to a particular situation. And just because someone has spent time thinking and praying through what they think God is saying, it does not make it less spiritual than someone standing up on the spur of the moment. Spontaneity is not the only criteria of authenticity.

And then there is the gift of discernment. It might be someone else says, ‘I went there, or met so and so, or heard this and I was quite uncomfortable: Help me think it through and perhaps we need to pray about what is dark there.’

And what about the gift of tongues? In our community here we don’t speak much about tongues. We don’t want to over-emphasise them. They are the least of the gifts. But our danger is that we under-emphasise a very precious gift. And tongues are useful. Quite a number of people here speak in tongues. I speak in tongues. I use them occasionally in my personal prayer, especially when I really don’t know what else to pray. I say God has given me a baby language to pray in, and I trust that as I pray in tongues his Spirit will pray in me. 

Tongues are not for special Christians. Tongues are for inadequate Christians, who can’t pray. So pray and ask God to give you the gift, and then open your mouth and begin to speak. Most of the time this gift is to be used privately, but very occasionally, in your small group, it might be right to speak out loud in tongues, and it may be that God will give to one of the others a sudden understanding of what it is that you have said. At least that is how I understand the interpretation of tongues.

The point about all of these gifts is that they are given to build up the body of believers so that we glorify God. We are not all thinkers. We are not all feelers. We are not all activists. We are not all contemplatives. But if we are to worship God, to be the body of Christ, the church, we need each other. The thinkers need the feelers and the feelers need the thinkers. The activists need the contemplatives and the contemplatives need the activists.

So I finish by asking three simple questions.

1. Where are you on this line? Are you cursing Jesus both in your words and lifestyle, or are you declaring by your words and lives that Jesus is Lord?

2. How are you using the gifts or spheres of work that God has already given you? Have you submitted them to God and asked him to energise them by the Spirit so that they can be used for his glory?

3. Are you open to receive and to use these spiritual gifts? A good place to start is to ask God to give you the gift of tongues - and then open your mouth and try to speak in tongues. He may not give you that gift, but he will give you one of the greater gifts listed here: greater because they are more useful in building up the people of God so that we can louder and clearer together declare to heaven and the earth that Jesus is Lord.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Where will faith be found in 2015?

[If the service is in the context of an all age gathering, the following may be appropriate.
In our story Jesus finds something in an unexpected place. 

I've hidden 5 boxes in the church
(each box has letter of the word 'faith' on it. One of boxes needs to be in an unexpected place. When they are all together get children to work out what the word is)

Rhiannon found love in a hopeless place! 
Jesus found faith in an unexpected place]

'I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith' 

Jesus is looking for people with faith.

He looks for faith in the place where he would expect to find it.

Of course that would be in the people who God chose to be his own people - the people of Israel.
They were the people chosen by God to be His people all those many years before. They were the people who had seen God act time and time again to rescue them. They were the people who had been given the great promises of God and the word of God.
They were the people who knew that if you turned to God in repentance and humility he would be merciful and he would act. 

In our story the elders do believe Jesus. They believe that Jesus can heal. That is why they come to him on behalf of the centurion.

But if you look closely you will realise that their faith is not faith in the love and mercy of God, but in the fact that the centurion is a good man and that God rewards good men.

‘He has done good stuff. He is worthy. He loves our nation’, they say. 
‘He built our synagogue’, they say.
He's put the money in the machine, and now it is right for him to get something out of the machine. Their faith is partly in Jesus, but mainly in the good works of the man.

That is what many people think. It is what many church people think. If you do good, you'll get good - if not in this life, in the next. In some religions it is called karma. 

But that is not the faith that Jesus is looking for.
Instead he finds the faith that he is looking for in someone who was not a Jew, but a Gentile. 
1. The centurion sees himself as he really is. 

He says, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you’.

The elders think that the centurion is worthy for Jesus to do this for him. But he knows that he is unworthy – not only for Jesus to do this for him, but even to have Jesus come into his house.

In other words, he knows that God owes him nothing. Even if he had built a thousand synagogues or churches God would owe him nothing. After all God has given him everything he has in the first place. Everything he had was gift. And in comparison with Jesus he is nobody.

That is why Jesus is astonished at his faith

2. The centurion sees Jesus as he really is.

He says, ‘For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion has his authority from the Roman Emperor. He is under authority. But it is because he is under authority that he has authority. When he speaks to his men he is speaking to them as, in place of, with the authority of the emperor.

So this is an amazing statement of faith. It realises that Jesus is both under authority, and – because of that – he exercises the authority of the one whose authority he is under.  

I don’t think that the centurion had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity. But he had probably heard Jesus praying to God his Father, and he knew that Jesus operated in the world with the authority of God the Father.

But in making this statement, he throws himself on the mercy and the goodness of Jesus. It is Jesus’ choice. 
If Jesus heals his servant, that is wonderful. 
If he does not heal his servant then it is still OK.
Jesus is still the one who speaks with the authority of God. And he is still to be trusted.

That is why Jesus is astonished at his faith.

3. The centurion knows that the word of Jesus has the power to raise the dead.

The centurion’s servant was at the point of death. And yet the centurion says to Jesus, ‘But say the word, and let my servant be healed’.

To believe that the word of God is the only thing necessary is the greatest act of faith. For most of Jesus’ healings, people needed him to come to him, to have him touch them, to have him do something for them. But this centurion realises that the only thing necessary is the word of God. The only thing necessary is what God says.

That is why Jesus is astonished at his faith.

In 2015 where will Jesus find faith?

He would look for faith in the church.

After all, we are the people who have become Christians because we heard the Word of God about Jesus, about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, about the the hope of heaven – and we believed it and received baptism and the Holy Spirit.

The question is whether he will find faith here?

Perhaps we allow a bit of deserv-ism to creep in to our faith. I’m a good person and I am worthy for God to do this for me – or for him or her.

Or is there an element of conditional-ism in our faith. We put our trust in God while he heals our servants. But if he doesn’t ..!

Or is there an element of active-ism in our faith. We must do something, and if we don’t then perhaps it won’t happen

I’ve just read CJ Sansom’s Lamentations – it is a great if a bit of a gruesome read. The story is based on an incident in the life of Queen Catherine Parr. She was not just the 6th wife of Henry VIII, the one who survived! She is also one of the very first women authors in English, and I am not sure that her role in establishing the Reformation in this country has yet been fully recognised. She wrote two books: Meditations and Prayers, and Lamentation of a Sinner.

The Meditations begin with a prayer of surrender.

‘Grant me that I may ever desire and will that which is most pleasant and most acceptable to thee.
Thy will be my will, and my will be to follow alway thy will. ..
Give, therefore, what thou wilt, as much as thou wilt, and when thou wilt. Do with me what thou wilt, as it shall please thee, and shall be most to thine honour. Put me where thou wilt, and freely do with me in all things after thy will. Thy creature I am, and in thy hands, lead and turn me where thou wilt.
Lo, I am thy servant, ready to do all things that thou commandest; for I desire not to live to myself, but to thee.’

There is no conditionality in that. It is a prayer of faith.

And as we face an exciting year, beginning what I hope will be a new era in the life of St Peter’s, my prayer is that we will be men and women who put our faith in the Word of the Son of God, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.
I pray that we put our faith in the promises that he has given us, and the call we have heard.
And I pray that, like the centurion, we bring the equivalent of our sick servants to him: our children (my deepest desire) - the things that frighten us, our monsters, our hurts, our decisions (second minister), our hopes. 
And that – with no element of deservism and no element of conditionality – we trust him.

There is a much repeated quote: ‘I do not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future’.

Or, as most of you will be aware: The letters FAITH can stand for For All I Trust Him.

May God find faith here in us in 2015