Thursday, 28 January 2016

It is all about love

It really is all about love.

This is one of the most beloved passages in the bible.
It is the favourite at weddings.
I also think it makes a great passage for a Christian funeral! I would love to ask you to consider choosing it for your funeral, but I am not quite sure how that sounds!

The chapter speaks of

1.      The Necessity of Love (1 Corinthians 13.1-3)

Without love, Paul says, the greatest speaker is a noisy gong. You speak eloquently, you write with flair, but if love is not controlling your words, you are just noise.
Without love, the most spiritually powerful man or woman, who can make astonishing things happen, and who has deep knowledge, is nothing. That is a bit of a wakeup call. You can be very spiritual, even have spiritual power, and still be lost.
Without love, you can give away everything, subject yourself to strict spiritual disciplines, suffer the most dreadful ordeal, and it will all be for nothing.
In other words, if we want our speech to matter, to ring with beauty and truth and harmony, to declare what is from eternity, to change lives for eternity, we need to be controlled by love.
If we wish to be somebody – not just here and now – but somebody in eternity, we need love.
If we wish to win everyone for Christ, to gain everything, we need to be set on fire by love.

2.      The Beauty of Love (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)

These verses do not describe love. Instead I see these verses as being a description of the stunning dress that love wears. It is a dress which reflects the innermost being of love, but it is not – if you forgive the analogy – a description of naked love.

Naked love is something that cannot be described. It is beyond words. If we could describe love, we could describe God. The early Christian thinkers spent much time reflecting on love. Augustine talks of love as the utter delight in the other, and love is driven by the desire to be one with the other, in complete harmony with them. God, in choosing to create you and me, chose to create someone in whom he has utter delight. When Jesus was baptised, God looks at his Son now become a human, and says, ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I delight’

Love as delight and desire: that is rather philosophical! 
Paul in Corinthians is far more practical! 
If you notice, that magnificent list in verses 4-7 contains more negatives than positives. We are told what love is not, as well as what love is.

So love is patient. Love gives people time to become. It does not demand perfection immediately.
And love is kind. Morality can be very harsh. One thinks of civil morality: the current political correct, health and safety morality – which comes from the best of motives – can become very unforgiving. Even Christian morality can come over with a fierce harshness. And kindness is the opposite of harshness. It is about gratuitous goodness. It is about gentleness, going beyond what should or ought to be done. It shows mercy and does good to the undeserving.

Love does not envy: It does not look at others and wish to be like them. There was a great deal of spiritual-gift envy in the Corinthian church. “He can speak in tongues; she can pray and people are healed; they are an amazing speaker – I want to be like them.”
Love does not boast: That is the flip side of envy. It does not think too highly of itself. It does not look down on others
It is not arrogant or rude. When we are proud or envious we begin to treat people like things and not like people. We treat them either as if they are gods or as if they do not matter.
Love does not insist on its own way. We’re getting a little bit close to the bone here. People must do things my way. It is one of the big lessons that I am having to learn – to let go and let people do things their way.
It is not irritable or resentful. We’re even closer to the bone here. I wish I could say that I am visibly growing in grace in these areas, that I am becoming less irritable and less resentful. But I am not sure that is true. I think, as we grow older, this can be one of the real battles that we face. So, for instance, I’m left behind tidying up after everyone has left and I resent it. I’m taken for granted and I resent it. And there is a danger, brothers and sisters, that as we grow older we can become more irritable, a GLOM or a GLOW, grumpy little old man or grumpy little old woman.
And love hates! It does not rejoice in wrongdoing. When a person who is filled with love sees what is wrong, what is destructive and hateful, what turns another person into an object and uses them to satisfy myself; when love sees people in slavery to sin and destructive habits or thought patterns – it hates it.

And the opposite: Love rejoices in the truth.
In that phrase we do get a tiny glimpse of naked love.

Love rejoices. Love is about delight in what is true.
Truth is about what is real. So love delights in what is ultimately real, in God, in God’s world, in each person made in the image of God.
Love rejoices in the word of God: ‘Oh how I love your law’, says the Psalmist.
Love is gripped by the promises and commands of God. Because they are true.
And love delights in truth in here: in deep authenticity, integrity and honesty.

And that makes sense of the next verse (and I’m using the NRSV version): ‘Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’.
Love does not believe that this world rests on the back of a tortoise, who stands on another tortoise who stands on another tortoise who stands on the back of an elephant. 
Love does not believe that if I jump out of a window I will fly. 
But love does believe and hope in all things that are true.

The person who loves does believe all things and hope all things that are there in the word of God.
And the person who loves is prepared to bear all things (insults and ridicule, the loss of all things, imprisonment, torture and death) and is prepared endure all things for the sake of the promises of God, for the sake of the hope of the inclusion of all people in the embrace of God and for the hope of the presence and glory of God.
Jesus, we are told, endured the shame of the cross, for the sake of the joy set before him (Hebrews 12.2). That is love.

3.      The Victory of Love (1 Corinthians 13.8-13)

‘Love never ends’ (v8).
Our speech about God, our prophecy, our knowledge is partial.

That is obvious. We’re like 5 years olds trying to understand and explain the theory of relativity.
We are looking at the ultimate reality through frosted glass: we can make out shapes and colours but it is all very blurred

But – and this is why 1 Corinthians 13 makes a great text for a funeral - on the day when we finally see him there will be no longer any need for speech.
Nobody will need to tell us that love is the great command.
We will see complete truth and utter beauty. We will see One who is, himself, absolute love.

There is an astonishing line here, which it is easy to miss. We are told that on that day, ‘I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (v12). God knows you. He knows you more than you know yourself. He knows the good and he knows the bad. He knows your desires and your motives. And even though he hates that which is evil, that which destroys his likeness in you, he still loves you. He delights in you, and he desires that you would be at one with Him.

And as we, on that day, see naked love, we will either have become so small and bitter and twisted and self-focussed that we will hate him and try to hide from him, like bugs running from the daylight – or we will love him.

We will see him and it will be like an explosion of joy. Peter speaks of ‘an indescribable and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1.8). We will delight in him and in all he has made. And we will be at one with him.

That is then!

What about the now? How do I become more loving? How do I allow the love of God to grip me and control me and fill me?

1.      Seek God and pursue love. (1 Corinthians 14.1)

It is helpful to make a distinction between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruits of the Spirit. Paul has spoken of some of the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Some have one gift, others have another.

But the fruits are different. The fruits are what should be expected in the life of every Christian. The seed of the Spirit is there in the heart of a believer, and the fruit grows out of that seed. If there is no evidence of the fruits growing, says Jesus, then we have to question whether the seed is really there in the first place. Some of the fruits are listed in Galatians 5.22. And the principle fruit is the fruit of love. Love is what holds us all together with our different gifts. If I love, I will not be envious of another person and their gift. If I love, I will use my gift to serve and honour them.

And like fruit that grows on a tree, love will grow in the life of a person who desires God, longs for God, has given themselves to God and who asks God to fill them with his Spirit and his love.

Please don’t despair if you think you are becoming less loving. I suspect that is par for the course. It probably means that you are becoming more honest, and beginning to realise how far you need to go.
Think of a fruit tree. The tiny bud appears, and then comes the blossom. It looks beautiful. You might think, ‘This is what it is all about. I have made it’. But try eating blossom (actually don’t!). And then the blossom goes. The bud remains but it seems to do nothing, and then the fruit begins to grow.

That bud of love will grow in the person who desires God above all things, and who pursues love. Paul writes that, ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us’ (Romans 5.5).

2.      Put your hope in the fact that one day you will see Jesus and be filled with his love.

John writes, ‘When he [Jesus] is revealed [on that final day], we will be like him, for we will see him as he is’. When we look at perfect love, we will be filled with love.
But it is not just for then. John continues, ‘And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure’. (1 John 3.2f)

I don’t understand how it works, but it does work! The simple hope that one day we will see Jesus and become like him, filled with love, means that here and now we grow in love.

So there is faith and there is hope and there is love. 
But the greatest of these is love. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The fire of the Holy Spirit

Luke 3.15-22

It is a dirty place out there.
Herod, in our reading, is an example of that. He wants to live life his way. And when John challenges him, he uses his power to silence him.

And that is not unknown today: we think of rulers, political parties, businesses who have used their power to suppress those who would challenge what they do. And it has not been unknown for the Church to use its position of power to cover up its dirty secrets.

But there also dirt in here, in the human heart.
John the Baptist calls the people who come to hear him preach, ‘a brood of vipers’. Not the quickest way to win friends and influence people. He declares that God’s judgement is coming on a generation of people who have forgotten God and yet are spiritually complacent. They have chosen to be blind to those in need, to live for stuff, and if they’ve already got stuff, live for more stuff, and to use whatever power they have to push others down so that they can get more and go up.

And so John, in his preaching, calls them to a baptism of repentance

John invites his listeners to receive baptism. He is saying that being a descendant of Abraham is not enough to be a true member of the people of God. A true member is someone who turns to God, puts their trust in and lives his way.  And as a mark that are truly repentant for the life that they have been forgiven, and that they truly intend to live for God, he urges them to be baptised. It meant that they went to the river Jordan, were submerged under the water, as a sign that God has forgiven them. It is a symbolic washing to show that the dirt, the sin has been washed away.

But the problem with John’s baptism is that although it revealed a person’s intention, it could not change a person’s heart.

Luke says very little about Jesus’ baptism. He simply says, ‘When all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised ..’  It seems that – before John was imprisoned – all the people had been baptised by John (at least all of the people who had come to John), and then Jesus was baptised. His baptism appears to be the last, the climax of John’s baptism.

So Jesus sets his seal on John’s baptism. Yes, it is a baptism for repentance (although of course Jesus did not need to repent); and it is also a baptism of obedience (because it is what God commands) and it is a baptism of good intention: I intend to live a new God focussed life.

But Jesus takes it further. He adds a completely new dimension to baptism. John says (v16), ‘I baptise you with water; but ... he (the Messiah, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’

The Holy Spirit can change a person’s heart – because the fire of the Spirit burns away everything that is not of God.

John speaks of the Holy Spirit as the fire of God's judgement

In Luke 3.17, he tells us that Jesus will separate people: the wheat on one side, and the chaff on the other. The wheat are those who hear the word of God and respond. The chaff are those who hear and reject it. Herod may have been impressive, but he was chaff. The wheat will be gathered into the barn. The chaff – and the reality is that chaff is just a dead shell – will, on that final day, be burnt.

That ties in with the teaching of the New Testament. 2 Thessalonians 1.7 speaks of that final day when ‘the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God’. And it speaks of ‘eternal destruction’.

Or Rev 19.11-13, ‘Then I saw heaven opened [echoes of what happens in our reading when heaven is opened], and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire … his name is called The Word of God’

But what of those of us who turn to Jesus. Do we escape the fire?
And the answer is, Yes. We escape the fire of destruction, the second death, which is the lake of fire.
But the answer is also No.
Instead we choose voluntarily to come to the fire of the Holy Spirit, because we trust that God in his love will use the fire to purify us and to transform us.
We ask the Holy Spirit to burn up the dirt that is deep within us.

TS Elliot in his poem FourQuartets (Little Gidding, IV) writes that the only way we can be saved from the fire of judgement is by the fire of the Spirit. He writes that we can only live ‘consumed by either fire or fire’. We can be consumed by the fire that brings destruction or we can be ‘consumed’, transformed, changed by the fire that burns up all that is dirt in us. That is the fire which brings purity. So he speaks that we are ‘redeemed from fire by fire’. Redeemed from the fire which will totally consume us by the fire that will transform and purify us.
This fire of God is one and the same as the Holy Spirit or the love of God.

And the fire of the Spirit burns up all that is dirt within us:

Through his word shaping our conscience.
He convicts us of our sinfulness. We see ourselves with new eyes, with his eyes. I begin to realise that what I did thoughtlessly, or as a bit of fun or because it was a harmless habit, actually ends up cutting me off from God, destroying others, breaking my relationships, like a creeper, slowly strangling the inner life out of me.  We remember things that we have done, how we have treated someone, and it is almost as if someone has stabbed us. And yet I can begin to face the truth, and not go into the garden ‘to eat worms’, because I know that, in spite of all my filth, he loves me.

Through his discipline.
Through the discipline of obedience in the Christian life. Baptism, when we go down into the water, is about a dying to self. But that becomes a daily dying: the discipline of prayer, worship, fasting, giving - even when I do not wish to do it. 
He takes us through experiences we would rather not go through. Think of Paul with his so-called ‘thorn in the flesh’. It was probably a physical infirmity. Three times he prays and asks God to take it away. Three times the answer is no. Why? Because God says that his strength will be seen in Paul’s weakness.
Or we are taken to places we would rather not go.
Think of Simon Peter. Jesus tells him, ‘When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go (he said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God). After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.”  And I know it might sound madness, but Peter still chose to follow him. He still chose to step into the fire, the fire of God's judgement and the fire of God's love. 

And the Spirit will burn up that dirt within us through the people of God.
Through being part of the church, the opening of our lives and homes to one another, receiving the bread and wine, learning together, the discipline of the Christian life, through resolving conflict and not running away from conflict, as we teach and rebuke and challenge and encourage one another. You are a flame of God to me - because you challenge my self-centredness

You see the purpose of God in all of this is not to destroy us. In his deep deep love for us it is to make us people of fire.

Blaise Pascal, the French scientist, suffered. He struggled with poor health from the age of 18. He died at the age of 33. But they discovered, sewn into the lining of his jacket, a piece of paper. It contained a description of an experience he had when he saw the fire of God come down. In the middle of that experience, he wrote, ‘Fire, fire in the night; consuming me, all around, glory, wonder!’.

Or there is the story from the desert fathers. There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

The point is that the Holy Spirit and the fire of the God and the love of God are inseparable.

That is why, after Jesus has been baptised, the Holy Spirit comes on him and we hear the voice from heaven. ‘This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased’. It is a declaration of profound assurance – an assurance that Jesus was going to need in what he was going to face; of deep intimacy (the word ‘Beloved’ is most used in the love song that is the Song of Solomon) and of great affirmation. But it was not a guarantee of worldy well-being. In the very next chapter, the same Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted. And the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience (not that he was ever disobedient) through what he suffered.

It is dirty out there. But more to the point it is dirty in here, in our heart.

We need John’s baptism. We need forgiveness, to be washed clean. We need to be able to declare our intention.
But we also need Jesus’ baptism – the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of fire – because we need changed hearts.

So I want to finish by speaking to two groups of people

1.      To those who have not yet been baptised. It didn’t happen when you were a baby, and you have never made the decision to be baptised.

The decision to receive baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the decision to step into the fire of God’s love, to invite that fire into your life, and to ask him to to burn up all the dirt that is deeply ingrained in your heart. It is about asking him to show you the wonder of his love, so you begin to glimpse it, and the glory of his purpose for you.

Please consider taking that decision. Join the Christianity Explored course to find out more, or the Journeys course that we will be running at the end of February.

2.      To those who have been baptised
The challenge is not when (as adult or child) or how (full immersion or sprinkling) you were baptised but whether you are living now as someone who is baptised.
So baptism involves water because it is about living as people are forgiven, as people who are obedient and as people who have declared an intention to live for God.
But it also involves fire because it is about the Holy Spirit. 

Are you living as someone who is beginning to realise that you are a child of God, deeply beloved of God? Are you living as someone who calls out to God, ‘Father in heaven’. I appreciate that you may not feel that, but it is reality and we are called to live by faith. One day you will know the truth of it. And are you living as someone who is willing to be led into the fire, to invite the fire in, in order to let him burn up all the dirt that is in you, so that you may one day become fire? 

Lines in John Masefield's poem, The Everlasting Mercy, speak of this burning work of the Spirit:
"I did not think, I did not strive
The deep peace burnt my me alive"

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Building our life on the rock

There is something odd about this simple story that Jesus tells. It does not say quite what we think that it should say.

We think it should be saying that the house of the rock is the person who has built their life on Jesus. The house on the sand is the person who has rejected Jesus.

But if you read the story again, you will notice that it is saying a little bit more than that. Both the person who built their house on the rock and the person who built their house on the sand heard Jesus.

They both came out to listen to Jesus.
They both were attracted to him as a person. They both loved his stories. They both admired his teaching. They were both fans.

Today, those people are us. The person who builds on the sand and the person who builds on the rock could be you or me.
They are the people who do pick up their bible and read it.
They are the people who do spend time with the word of God.
They are people who do come to church and hear the teaching of Jesus.

The difference between them is not the difference between the person who ‘dislikes’ Jesus, and the person who ‘likes’ Jesus.
The difference is that the person who builds her house on the rock DOES what Jesus says.

This is not a story for people out there. This is a story for us, in here.

If our lives are truly rooted and founded on the rock of the foundation that is Jesus, then when we read the bible we will not simply read it as a great resource for titbits of wisdom or comforting words (perhaps not much different to, for instance, ‘The little book of the sayings of Oscar Wilde’).
If our lives are rooted on Jesus then we will hear the word of Jesus as our ultimate authority. And we will seek to do what he says – even when what he asks of us appears to be extremely costly.  

Imagine you have been taken for a flight in a light aircraft. The pilate has a black out. You are on your own. You have never flown a plane in your life. You have not got a clue what any of the instruments mean. So you call out to the person in the air control tower. They tell you that if you follow their instructions they can get you down safely. You know that your life depends not only on listening to what they say, but on doing exactly what they say.

Jesus here is saying that if we want our lives to stand up against the storms that will come our way, then we must be prepared to place our lives in his hand. We must not be simply hearers of the Word of God, but doers of the Word of God. If we want our lives to know the security of the peace of God in the face of trouble, conflict, catastrophic moral failure, shame, sickness or weakness, disappointment, desertion, lonliness, death and the final judgement that comes after death – then we need to be people who have built our lives on the rock of Jesus.

It means trusting him. It means obeying him.

Every year I encourage us to be people who listen to Jesus, who commit ourselves to spending at least 15 minutes a day to reading the bible and spending time in prayer.
But today our reading tells us that that is not enough. It is not just a matter of a confession of faith, but of conduct of faith. It is not just a matter of reading and hearing, but of obedience and doing.

This is not rocket science.  We’re not talking a grand plan of obedience, some great decision that needs to be taken, or even some miracle that you need to do. It is significant that just before telling us this story, Jesus has warned his listeners that people who say to him ‘Lord. Lord’ will be rejected if they have not done what he has asked, even if they have spoken powerfully, cast out evil and done amazing miracles in his name. This is not about doing big power-filled stuff. This is about a daily obedience which comes from a confidence that Jesus is the rock on whom I can build my life.

This story is the end of one of the greatest sermons ever preached. Jesus has spoken about getting the heart right, putting God first before all things and particularly before the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. And Jesus has taught that if we really do believe that he is the rock on whom we can build our lives, then we will seek His kingdom, we will have a deep hunger for God, or at least a hunger to hunger for God. I will seek to live forgiveness, be reconciled to my enemy, let go of hatred, show mercy, keep my word, pursue marital faithfulness and sexual integrity, give, pray, fast, examine myself in the presence of God before judging and condemning others.

So it is good to ask ourselves at the beginning of a new year, where are our foundations? What are the principles on which we build our lives?
It is not the sort of question that we often ask these days. We live for the moment. I’ll do whatever makes me feel good here and now. In which case the principle that we base our lives on is the pursuit of immediate personal happiness. And Jesus is OK provided that he enhances my personal happiness.

As one person said, “I have a lot of beliefs … And I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them—I like that part. They're my little "believies." They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I [will just do what I want to do].”

This story of the two builders is the invitation to submit to the exclusive lordship of Jesus, who fulfils the Law and the Prophets and warns the disobedient that the alternative to total obedience, true righteousness, and life in the kingdom is rebellion, self-centeredness, and eternal lost-ness, desolation. Basically, it is saying that if we don’t do what Jesus says, when the crisis comes (and it will come), our supposed faith will crash and we will crash.

So I finish with a quote from Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Obedience
“The true pupil, say of some great musician or painter, yields his master a wholehearted and unhesitating submission. In practicing his scales or mixing the colours, in the slow and patient study of the elements of his art, he knows that it is wisdom simply and fully to obey.
It is this wholehearted surrender to His guidance, this implicit submission to His authority, which Christ asks. We come to Him asking Him to teach us the lost art of obeying God as He did. ... The only way of learning to do a thing is to do it. The only way of learning obedience from Christ is to give up your will to Him and to make the doing of His will the one desire and delight of your heart.”