Sunday, 28 June 2015

The gospel is at the heart of Christian Unity.

A talk given at the Bury St Edmunds Come Together event.

Philippians 1.27-30

Great to be here, together with other brothers and sisters.

For the last 1000 years, Christianity has had a privileged position in this country. 

It has been the established religion of our nation
Our monarchs have been crowned by our church leaders
We have bishops in the Houses of Parliament
Many of our laws are rooted in biblical truths

But that is all changing rapidly

I predicted about 25 years ago that in 100 years’ time Christians would be some of those few strange people who – among other things – believed in life long monogamous partnership between one man and one woman. I stick by that prediction, apart from the 100 year bit.

And I would make another prediction. In 50 years’ time Christians will be that strange group of people who make babies the old fashioned way! The new normal will be that sperms and eggs are first frozen, then chosen, possibly genetically engineered and implanted in a uterus. Sex will be purely recreational. And we will live in a society which will think we are socially irresponsible not to give the tablet to our 93 year old parent who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  

We face astonishing challenges. There is the population explosion. In 2000 there were 6 billion people alive on this planet. Today, 15 years later, there are 7 billion. There is the development of technology. We’ve had to make up parenting as we go along. The rules that we laid down 5 years ago when our now 19 year old was 14 (he was only allowed to go online on the computer in the main room) are meaningless to our now 14 year old, with smart phones and 24 hour access to the internet. And how do we begin to cope with the idea of robotic bodies controlled by an implanted human mind? 

And perhaps as we face extraordinary change, we are tempted to despair. 

There is so much that we could disagree on – even on quite fundamental issues. 
We struggle to find agreement on the roles of men and women. How do we address bio-ethical issues not even dreamt of 100 years ago, let alone 2000 years ago? 

How is the Christian faith going to survive here in the west, when our society has made the individual's freedom to live out their desires its god. 

Are we going to tear ourselves apart?
Are we going to be rejected as irrelevant and reactionary? 

Or to put this another way:
What will keep us united as we have to cope with issues that make today's divisive issues look like a stroll in the park?
What will keep us firm when the privileges of power are stripped away from us and we face potential hostility and certain ridicule?

We need to turn to Philippians 1. 27-30

‘Live lives worthy of the gospel’. In that way, says Paul, I know that you will stand firm in one Spirit, that you will strive side by side for the faith of the gospel’.  

I love that.

What is consistent about what the church offered to the world in AD50, with what we offer to the world today and what we will offer to the world in 1000 years time, if the Lord has not returned by then.

It is the gospel. Paul defines the gospel in Romans 1.3 and in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5. It is the good news that 2000 years ago, God became human in Jesus Christ. It is the good news that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, he was buried and that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared ..’

The gospel, the good news, of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is at our very heart. 

It is the message which transforms us
When a person believes, when a man or woman, boy or girl, puts their trust in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, God changes our heart. We become new people. We receive a new Spirit. Paul says, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation for all who believer’.

It is the message which unites us. 
What do we have in common? 
Christ died for our sins. 
It is the great equaliser. We are forgiven sinners. 

There is nothing that you have done to earn forgiveness and acceptance by God. There is nothing you could have done. You are not saved because you are good or clever or significant. Forgive me: none of us is good enough or clever enough or significant enough - and we need to stop pretending that we are. 

In my previous church in Holloway, we shared the building for several years with another church, Victory Outreach. We met in the morning and evening. They met in the afternoon. They ran a very effective ministry among drug addicts and prostitutes. On one occasion at the end of our morning service, a teenager came in while we were having tea and coffee. He asked, ‘Is this the church where the bad people go?’ My church warden said, ‘No. They meet in the afternoon’. I have to say I was a bit jealous, so I added, ‘But we’re pretty bad!’

The reason that we can come into the presence of God, the reason that we can begin to receive from him, the reason that we can become sons and daughters of God – is because Jesus died for you and me.

God knows us. He knows our deepest innermost secrets, the things that would make us die of shame if our closest friends knew about them. He knows how we have rebelled against him, lived to satisfy our desires and not his commands. But he still loves us, and he sent his Son Jesus. And because Christ has died for us we are forgiven. Because Jesus was crucified we can become sons and daughters of God. 

My dear friends, if our unity is to grow – within our churches and between our churches – we need to live lives worthy of the gospel. We need to live as forgiven sinners. 

We do not need to prove ourselves and we have nothing to prove. So we can get off our high horses about being better than the next, or deeper, or more sound, or more spirit filled. You are a nobody who, because of Jesus, has been made somebody. I am a nobody who, because of Jesus, has been made somebody. Why should anybody show me respect? What have I done to deserve respect? All that I have, all that I am, all that I will be is because of Jesus. 

There is something very attractive about people who know that they are forgiven sinners. It is the beginning of a liberating humility. We do not need to set ourselves up above others. We are set free to love each other, to build the other up, to delight in who the other is. We are free to rejoice when we see that others have success, happy to play second fiddle when others take the lead, and willing to kneel down – like Jesus – and wash their feet, even when I disagree with them. 

It is the message which helps us stand firm. 
‘Christ rose from the dead .. and appeared ..’

It is painful to watch a society turn its back on centuries of Christian teaching. 
It also hurts to lose privileges, to lose respect and to realise that we have moved from being a moral majority to a missional minority.

And maybe some of you have suffered because of your faith.

But few of us have suffered in the way that many of our brothers and sisters in many countries have suffered, simply because they confess Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. 

I heard via Open Doors of one believer in Eritrea. Arrested at a Christian wedding reception, along with bride and groom and several of the other guests. They are beaten and imprisoned. He said, ‘For us, as believers, it is not a matter of if we will be arrested. It is a matter of when’.

And Paul knew suffering for the name of Jesus. When he is converted, and he hears what God is calling him to do, Jesus says, ‘And I will show you how much you must suffer for my sake’. So when Paul had first come to Philippi he had been arrested and imprisoned. But the remarkable thing is that we are told that while Paul and Silas are locked in the stocks in the innermost prison, they sing praise to God. And Paul is writing this letter from prison.

And do you notice the language that he uses here: ‘God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing but of suffering for him’.

How can he possibly use that language? 
Only someone who has been there, who has suffered for Christ, has the real integrity and authority to say those words. 
But he can say them because he has a hope. Christ has risen from the dead. Death has been conquered. What we experience here is nothing in comparison to the glory then.  

My dear friends, we face an incredibly testing time ahead of us. Christianity in the West will probably be written off. We are being moved from the centre to the edge. We will be regarded with, at best, amusement and at worst hostility. As we face the major issues that lie ahead of us, we will have to decide how to live in this brave new world that we are facing. Some will respond one way, others another. There is probably a right way, but none of us on our own will get it quite right. And we need to be gracious with each other, to remind ourselves that we are forgiven sinners. That is what it means to live a life shaped by the gospel, worthy of the gospel.

But even if it does go dark, we have been given a treasure, a jewel that shines with an unsurpassed brilliance. The darker it gets, the brighter that jewel will shine. And that jewel is the gospel. It is the message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. It is a message that will never change or need to change: it is about something that happened at one point in history, but it has significance for all of eternity. It is our banner, our standard, our colour. It is our centre, our heart, our purpose and our hope. It is what will shape our lives – as forgiven sinners with the hope of resurrection. It is what will enable us to stand firm in the Spirit of God. It is what will hold us together as we strive side by side. We preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015

How can I know I really matter?

1 Samuel 10.1-8

There are two deep desires that many of us have

1. We want to know that we are significant

We are told that we are unique and special, that we matter and are worth it.
But we see through the hype. If everyone is special then how can I be special?

There is this deep need for us to know that we are significant, that we are not just a cluster of atoms, which have randomly come together, for a millisecond of eternity, surrounded by other clusters of atoms,  which have randomly come together for their millisecond of eternity. 

We want to know that we really are significant.

And so we dream of what I would call the Susan Boyle moment – one moment they are laughing at us, treating us as a joke, as if we don't matter and the next we are receiving a standing ovation. Or it might be the dream of winning £93m in the lottery, being spotted by the scout, buying the bigger house, having the boss take us to one side and tell us ‘You are marked for big things’.

We think those things will show that we are significant.

2. We want to know that God is there

The two are connected. If God is there and God notices us, we are de facto significant!

We hear others tell of stories of amazing coincidences, of how God met with them and touched them – and they just ‘knew’ that God really was there, that they were loved, a child of God.

Both those things happened to the person mentioned in our reading today

Saul lived about 3000 years ago. He was physically tall, but that was his only distinguishing feature. He wasn’t a warrior or politician or priest. He didn’t come from an important family or a significant tribe. And when we first meet him in chapter 9, he’s doing a vital task! His dad has asked him to find some lost donkeys.

But two things happen:

1. Saul discovers he is significant

In 1 Samuel 10.1, Samuel takes a flask of oil, pours it over Saul’s head and says, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance?’

The background to 1 Samuel 10 is this. The people of Israel lived as 12 tribes united by common worship of God and the law of God. They were ‘ruled’, if one can use that word, by a prophet who was also their judge. In 1 Samuel, the prophet is Samuel.

But the people were not satisfied. They looked at their neighbours and saw they all had kings. And they wanted a king, especially as Samuel was growing old, and nobody quite knew what would happen when he died.

So they come to Samuel and say, ‘Give us a king’.

Samuel is a bit miffed. If you read chapters 5-7 you will see that God was looking after his people quite well without a king. And God says to Samuel, ‘They are not rejecting you. They are rejecting me. But they ask for a king, and I’ll give them a king’.

Meanwhile Saul, the son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin, is out looking for the donkeys. He comes to the land of Zuph, and learns that Samuel is in the local town. He goes to ask the prophet if he knows where the donkeys are. You did that in those days. Please don’t come to the vicar and ask him where you left your keys. In fact if you could tell me where my keys and glasses are I would be very grateful!

But Saul gets a bit more than he bargains for.

Samuel tells him he doesn’t need to worry about the donkeys. They have been found. He then invites him to the special dinner for local VIPs – held because Samuel is in town - and instead of sitting in the place of honour himself, puts Saul in the place of honour. And the following morning he anoints him King.

My friends, the highest honour that this world can bestow on us will not give us that sense that we are significant. If we are plucked out of obscurity to become somebody famous, it won’t satisfy that desire. If we are given one of the most important jobs or tasks it won’t satisfy that desire. We will always be looking for the next big calling or moment or thing.

Only God, one who is bigger than us, can satisfy that desire that we have for significance.

When a person comes to Jesus, when you put your trust in Jesus and choose to follow him, when you receive him as the Son of God and allow his Spirit to come into your life, you become significant. You become a child of God. John 1:12, ‘To all who received Jesus, he gave them the power to become children of God’.

It does not matter whether, in the eyes of the world, you are big or little, a nobody or a somebody. When you receive Jesus you are plugged into eternity. And as the life of eternity starts to flow through your lives, so you begin to see yourself and others and creation in a different light. You begin to know that you are unique and significant, that you were known by God from before creation began, that you have a glorious eternal destiny and that you really do matter. And although you are probably never going to be Prime Minister or be famous (but go on and surprise me) - God has a special calling that is for you. You are significant.

Oh, and by the way, you also begin to see that others are significant!

2. Saul discovers that God is there

God has called Saul to a major task, and Saul needs some convincing that this really is God, and not just Samuel having a laugh

And so Samuel tells him three things that will happen.

First, people will tell him that the donkeys have been found;

Second, different people will be carrying some sacrificial offerings and will give some of them to him;

Third, he will meet a group of prophets dancing and playing instruments and the Spirit will come onto him and he will begin to prophecy with them.

And what Samuel says happens. Saul meets someone who tells him the donkeys have been found; some pilgrims on their way to make a sacrifice give him some bread; and he meets with the group of prophets.

If something like that happened to us then we would know that God is there. We would never doubt God again. 

Well, things like that do happen.

I think of another Saul, who lived 1000 years later. He too was called to an incredibly difficult task. God says to him, ‘I will show you how much you must suffer for my name’. And he too had an amazing experience of God. He heard God’s voice, was blinded and then healed in the name of Jesus. That was the Saul who became the apostle Paul.

And I would hope that most of us could speak of times when God was so real that there was no question of doubting him. If you do experience times like that, try to remember them. Maybe even jot them down in a journal. We are very good at forgetting. When things are not happening and God seems distant, we forget what has happened and start to doubt again.  

But I’m not sure that the three extraordinary ‘God-incidences’ are the main point of 1 Samuel 10.  I’m not sure that they are the main evidence that God is there. I think the main point comes in verse 6 when Saul is told, ‘Then the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person’.

The promise of God, and the evidence of the reality of God, is that when a person puts their trust in Jesus, the Spirit will come into us and make us new people. ‘If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come’. (2 Corinthians 5.17).

The Spirit will work in us and will begin to change us. He will show us those areas in our lives that are not right, where we need to change. He will give us a desire to serve God.

And the Spirit will equip us for service and give us the courage to do what is right. He will grow those lovely fruits, character traits, in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He will give us that assurance that we belong to God and that we can cry out to God as we might cry out to a dearly beloved father. Even when coincidences don’t seem to happen, or prayers are not answered as we wish, the rubbish happens or it seems that we are wading through treacle, we will know that God is there.

And when the Spirit comes, and we are changed, then we begin to discover what it is to be really free. In verse 7, Samuel says to Saul, ‘Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you’.  St Augustine echoed that thought: ‘Love God and do what you will’. The point is that the person so gripped and controlled by the Spirit of God will want to do the things of the Spirit of God.

I suspect that few of us here will meet with a prophet who will tell us that we are going to become Prime Minister or the next big thing or that we are called by God to do some work that this world considers important and for which it gives great honour.

But that might be a good thing. Saul had been given a great task and a new heart. He was persuaded that God was there and God was in this. But he was not obedient to God. Possibly the task or responsibility went to his head. That is another talk for another time. All we need to know here is that the story of Saul ends in tears.

But it doesn’t need to.

In the Church of England we have a confirmation service.
At the confirmation service, the candidates publicly declare their faith and the bishop anoints them with oil, just as Samuel anointed Saul. The bishop then lays his or her hands on your head, and says ‘Mary, Ray, God has called you by name and has made you his own’.

The anointing and laying on of hands is a physical expression of a much deeper reality. It is a mark to show that God is there and you matter to him. It is the physical expression of the truth that was carved into the very fabric of the universe when Jesus died on the cross that you are eternally significant.

The confirmation service is your coronation service as a prince or princess of heaven.

Could you indicate if you have been confirmed? When I was a teenager it was the expected thing to do, quite often irrespective of whether you believed or not. I’m grateful that is not the case now. But we have gone to the opposite extreme: very few people come forward for confirmation. So if you haven’t been confirmed could I urge you to think very seriously about being confirmed. Come and have a talk with me if that would help.

You see, if you are a believer, then it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been confirmed, and it makes no difference to how you stand in the faith. But I do think that you are missing out on one of the very precious gifts that God has given his people through his Church.

It is an outward sign of the inward reality that God has given you his Spirit, that he has made you a new person and called you to a task.

It is an expression of the reality that God is there and that you are, in Christ, as a friend of Jesus, unique, honoured, precious and significant. And he loves you.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Be holy, be hopeful, be humble

What sort of lives should we live?

I wonder what you will end up doing?
Astronaut, lawyer, vicar, retail manager, musician, footballer, engineer, writer, inventor, nurse.

It is fascinating: and I look forward to finding out.

But Peter asks a slightly different question: not what will you do, but what sort of person will you be? What will be your character?

It is more important. Because we are bigger than what we do. We are how we live.

So what sort of people should be like? Holy, Godly, People with a hope, Active, Humble, Grow and mature, people who bring glory to God. 

I’m just going to focus on three. 

1. Holy people

Peter writes: ‘What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness … without spot or blemish’.

That sounds so boring. We think of holy people as pious and aloof, sitting cross legged on some mountain somewhere. It is OK if you are into that sort of thing. Or we think of them as people who are self-righteous, holier than thou. 

That is very different to the vision of holiness that we are given in this letter: 

On the negative side it is about not giving in to every desire or lust that we have, and not rejecting authority simply because it is authority (2 Peter 2.10). It is about not rubbishing things we don’t understand (2 Peter 2.12). It about not (I like this one) speaking ‘bombastic nonsense’ (2.18). It is about not living lives that are controlled by money or sex (2 Peter 2.14). 

That is negative. But Peter describes what it is like. It is about goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, perseverance (stickability and faithfulness especially when things get tough), and it is about mutual affection – heart friendship, love (2 Peter 1.5-7). 

It is about being the best friend that you can ever be to another person. It is about delighting in who God has made them to be and in what they can become. It is respecting them as a unique human being, with a potential eternal destiny. It is about being loyal, open, honest about our own failings, transparent, utterly reliable, committed to the absolute best for them, not just here and now, not just for the next 70 or 80 years, but for eternity. And that might mean encouraging them or challenging them.  

Holiness as Peter describes it, is not boring

2. People of Hope

We are people who are looking to the future, to the day when Jesus returns, when death and destruction and pain and suffering and evil are wiped out. 

‘But in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness [right-ness] is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13). 

We need hope to live. 

If you are a football fan, an Ipswich Town fan, you need hope. The season would be impossible if there was no hope of them winning any game, let alone of promotion. It doesn’t need to be a big hope (that would be foolish!). But it can be a little hope. Maybe we won’t get relegated; maybe we will finish mid league, maybe we will get to the play offs, or the quarter finals of FA cup. 
If there is no hope, the season is pointless (literally)! But if there is a hope, however small, there is a reason for the season, and there is a reason for keeping on going. 

We need a hope to live.

William Barclay, in his commentary on 2 Peter, tells of three inscriptions on pagan tombstones which show us what happen when there is no hope.
The first says: ‘I was nothing; I am nothing; so thou who art still alive, eat, drink and be merry’. It is what some call hedonism. We live for this world and we live for ourselves. It makes sense. 
The second says: ‘Once I had no existence; now I have none. I am not aware of it. It does not concern me’. Without hope we do nothing. 
The third says: ‘Charidas, what is below? ‘Deep darkness.’ But what of the paths upward? ‘All a lie’. ‘Then we are lost’. Without hope, we despair.

The Christian hope, that one day Christ will return, that it will be the end of space and time as we know it, that one day death and lies and shame and suffering will be gone, and that we will live lives of peace and joy and fulfilment and abundance and love and laughter; and that we will see God and everything will be right, is a hope which will transform our lives. We will want to prepare ourselves for that life then. And the more that hope takes a grip on us, the less we will live for the things of this world and the more we will live for the things of that world.

But the hope that Jesus will return is actually harder to believe even than the idea that Ipswich will get promotion next season. 

Peter is aware of that. There are people who are saying, ‘There is no future hope. Give it up. Live for this world, live for yourself – because this world is all that there is’. 

But that is why he has been writing this letter. He is saying to people, ‘This is the promise of God. This hope is real. It may be bigger than our minds can grasp – but it is real’. 

And earlier in this letter he has reminded us of something that happened when Jesus was alive. 

In 2 Peter 1.16-18 he tells of how he saw the glory of Jesus. Peter, James and John went up a mountain with Jesus, and he was transfigured. They saw him. He was bigger than time: he was speaking with Moses and Elijah, both of whom had lived centuries before. He was bigger than creation: he shone with the light that created physical light. And they heard the voice from heaven declaring that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. 

I’ve often wondered why Peter chose that particular incident to tell us about. In the New Testament, outside the gospels, it is the only specific incident in Jesus’ life, apart from his death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances, that we are told about. 

I can imagine Peter, about to be taken to his place of execution, probably in chains, giving his instructions to the person who wrote 2 Peter, ‘Tell them about the transfiguration because it is an example of the ‘power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 1.16). And because he wants to reassure the Christians to whom he is writing about the hope that we have of the coming of Jesus – he wants to remind us, and possibly himself as he faces death: it really happened and it blew our minds. 
And one day he will come again and it will blow our minds. 

But that is our hope. Life is not just a drag from one high to the next high to the next high to death. Life has a purpose, it has a goal. We have a reason to live. It is why it is worth slogging it out here, persevering even when it feels that it is all about this world, or when people mock us because we believe in Jesus. 

We have a hope. 

3. Humble people

What sort of people should we be? We should be people who live under the authority of the word of God – even when it tells us stuff that we don’t want to hear. 

But we need to be careful. I love vv15-16. Peter tells us that Paul’s letters are to be considered ‘scripture’ (i.e they have authority). That is interesting, because in one of those letters Paul tells us how he confronted Peter, when Peter was wrong. 

But Peter also says that what Paul writes is hard to understand, and we need to be careful how we interpret those passages, and other parts of the bible. Because, to be honest, we can make the bible say stuff that God would never want to say. That is why we need the church – the people of God from all eras and all cultures – to help us understand the bible. It is why we need the creed, as a sort of control to our understanding. It is why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

We really do need to have a degree of humility when we come to understanding the bible. I have every confidence that this is the word of God. But I do seriously need to question my interpretation of it, especially when others have interpreted or do interpret a passage in a different way to how I interpret it. 

Richard Hooker, who is one of my theological heroes, (he lived in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth) challenged those who were so insistent that they had the right interpretation: ‘Think ye are men, deem it not impossible for you to err; sift impartially your own hearts, whether it be force of reason or vehemecy of affection, which hath bred and still doth feed these opinions in you. If truth do anywhere manifest itself, seek not to smother it with glossing delusions, acknowledge the greatness therof, and think it your best victory when the same doth prevail over you.’ (Preface IX [1], p143)

In other words. Place yourself under the authority of the word of God. But be humble, and do not twist the Word of God to make it mean what you personally want it to mean.

I’m going to finish here. There is so much more that could be taken from these verses. Read them when you go home. But remember what is really important is not what you do, but how you live. And Peter urges us: be humble, be hopeful, be holy.