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Sunday message 14 May 2017 – “Meanwhile… lights and voices…”

READINGS:  Galatians 1:11-24;  Acts 9:1-31

SERMON

So we’ve been through 12 disciples, 13 apostles and 7 deacons.

Two of the deacons – Stephen and Philip – are key to the expansion of the gospel.

But the Acts of the Holy Spirit (better name than the Acts of the apostles) suddenly has a key character.

Philip is whisked off to a new place to tell the story, and chapter 9 of Acts begins with an enticing “Meanwhile, ….”

This Jewish Pharisee who approved of Stephen’s stoning, is on the war path wanting to lock up the Christians – “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples…”

He’s on the road to Damascus in Syria, that same beautiful country that has been so badly bombed in this generation.

His name is Saul of course. Saul is his Hebrew name. Paul his Greek name. Like immigrants today have an original name from their home country and a New Zealand English name.

By the way – there is no evidence in the Bible that God gave him a new Christian name “Paul”. Luke begins to use that name when he is talking about ministry to Greeks. And as the apostle to the Gentiles (i.e. Greeks mainly) it makes sense that he used his Greek name. He seems to have done this on his 1st Missionary journey when on Cyprus (Acts 13:9).

So when he sees the light – on the Damascus road – the Lord addresses him as Saul, This is how Luke describes it:

Act 9:4  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

That certainly got his attention. It was probably the only way. You may have heard the expression “being knocked off his high horse”. One has to say that there is no mention of a horse in the text – artists have contributed to this idea. At noon Paul was more likely praying – that being a set prayer time in the day.

It’s the “Damascus road experience” that interests me… People talk about their “Damascus road experience.”

As if it were a template for everyone.

Well maybe if you were pharisaical persecutor of Christians. Or highly intelligent. Or brainwashed.

Nothing compares to this encounter. You can see it in the special arrangement lined up. Ananias is given instructions to go to a specific house and ask for Saul of Tarsus.

He response is classic: Act 9:13  “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. Act 9:14  And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.

One can only imagine what he was thinking. Seriously God? Saul of Tarsus?

The Lord spells out the gravity of this mission: Act 9:15  But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Act 9:16  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

The narrative is brilliant. Ananias, like Stephen and Philip – does what He is instructed to do. Act 9:17  Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Act 9:18  Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, Act 9:19  and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.

Once again baptism is immediate and almost incidental to the events. The next thing Saul is preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

Is that your experience? Damascus road – lights and voices – straight into action – after being blinded for three days? Probably not.

In Paul’s own words in Galatians 2 we heard how he saw things. A lot happens for him to become apostle number 13 – especially since to be an apostle you had to have been a witness to the physical resurrection of Jesus.

There’s always an exception. Like Stephen and Philip not conforming to the expectation they would be food bearers. They are open – God uses them in his own divine and sovereign way.

And Saul is the one who will swing this whole thing. This fledgling group of Jewish followers of Jesus will find that the “Way” is open to all people – the whole world.

It’s no coincidence that Paul writes the bulk of the New Testament epistles.

That his amazing intellect and heart for God blesses us with so much today.

BUT – and here’s my simple message for today.

Does Paul look for people just like him? Do they have to follow his template for salvation – a major conversion experience –  the “Damascus road” people? Certainly many come to faith through his preaching – sometimes through conviction, sometimes after a time of reflection and re-engagement with Paul.

But his team does not have to be the same in terms of their conversion.

Who would you say is Paul’s main disciple? Or at least his favourite?

Well perhaps his letters to Timothy give that away. Listen to the opening verses: 1Ti 1:1  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, 1Ti 1:2  To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

One of the most beautiful passages – showing a side of Paul that we might not appreciate – is found in 2 Timothy 1: Ti 1:3  I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

2Ti 1:4  Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 2Ti 1:5  I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

But look at this:  2Ti 1:6  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 2Ti 1:7  For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

Yes Timothy’s faith was something that shaped his whole life. v5  I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also…

This is a man who has learned about faith from two generations in his family. What a heritage.

And you meet people like this today all over the place. If you ask them whether they had a Damascus road experience – or when they first met Jesus –  they might say something like this: “You know, I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t in my life – when I didn’t pray and know his presence”.

Ring any bells? There is no one formula. And what matters is that they land up in that place of completely  trusting Jesus. The Holy Spirit of course gives us that certainly of who we are as God’s children. Paul writes this in Romans 8: Rom 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  Rom 8:16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 

But there’s more.

Verse 6 in 2 Timothy that we have looked at already is instructive too: 2Ti 1:6  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.

Even for those who can’t remember when they didn’t know the Lord – if you want to really be used by God – an impartation of his gifts and power is more than useful… It’s essential. (Paul too received ministry from Ananias through the laying on of hands.)

Elsewhere Paul writes:  Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. (1 Thess 5:19)

And for many of us – although we know about his gifts – we don’t actually appropriate them.

God has hopes and dreams for us –  to be really effective through His power.

It’s up to you whether you seek him with all your heart. (That book by Simon Ponsonby on holiness is still on the library table outside. It’s a challenge for you to take up.)

There are other books today by Bill Johnson that are worth reading. And more to come. About appropriating the gifts God has given us.

It’s challenge for all of us to really be open to God’s leading – to be a Stephen, a Philip, a Paul or a Timothy…  They were all filled with the Spirit.

Our challenge is to continue the acts of the Holy Spirit in this generation…

How about it then?

At the end of Acts 9 there is this welcomed pause:

Act 9:31  Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

It didn’t happen by chance. Nor did it happen without cost. Or risk taking.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday Sermon 11 October 2015 — Sons and daughters of encouragement

Readings

Heb 10:19- 36; Acts 11: 19- 30  Matthew 13: 18-23

Message

Stephen – the first Christian martyr – is killed (Acts 7:54-60) .Stoned to death. And the young man called Saul (not yet called Paul) is there approving of his murder. (v 60).

And persecution follows on a wider scale (Acts 8:1-3) We pick this up in Luke’s account in Acts 11:

  • Act 11:19  Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
  • Act 11:20  Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.

Antioch is the place where the disciples are first called Christians (Acts 11:26) It’s where the good news is shared with Greeks.

And the news is really great. People come to faith – non-Jews. Listen again:

  • Act 11:21  The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
  • Act 11:22  News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
  • Act 11:23  When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
  • Act 11:24  He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord

Who do they send? Barnabus – the son of encouragement. What a good person to have doing a Presbytery visit. We find out more about Barnabus – key things that are a lesson for us.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when we talked about Barnabus selling his field and bringing the money to the apostles to help those in need in the church? The reference was Acts 4:36-37, and I quoted a preacher and commentator Lloyd Ogilvie who said this:

In two brief verses we are introduced to one of the most admirable personalities of the New Testament. If all we had to enable us to know this man’s character were these two verses, we’d still have enough to stand in admiration and then desire to be like him.

Well I promised more about Barnabus – today’s the day:-)

Barnabus is thrilled with what he sees in Antioch. What does he do? He fetches Saul (whom we know as Paul) from Tarsus.

What you may know is that this son of encouragement had encountered Saul earlier.

After Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he shows up in the Christian community. (Acts 9)

You can imagine their suspicions of him – Saul persecuted them and is now a Christian preacher. Here’s the story from Acts 9:20 when Paul arrives in Damascus and after Ananias prays for him and the scales fall off his eyes (he was temporarily blinded on the road) and he is baptised:

  • Act 9:20  At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.
  • Act 9:21  All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?”
  • Act 9:22  Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

The story is hectic. Some Jews plot to kill him. But he is smuggled out of the city in a basket through an opening in the wall (Acts 9:25). You can see the early Ian Fleming novels beginning here (the author of James Bond!).

He goes to Jerusalem. There too the Christians are less than thrilled to have him around. (Trust issues don’t you think? You get this in all organisations and in families.)

Guess who shows up and rescues his reputation – saving the day for the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom principles of truth and grace? Barnabus of course. We read in Acts 9:27 and 28:

  • Act 9:27  But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
  • Act 9:28  So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

Barnabus the encourager – filled with the spirit of truth – stands for truth – advocating for Saul (or Paul as he becomes known).

It doesn’t last long though. We read in Acts 9:29 – He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. So they get him out of there and off to Tarsus his home town.

So here it is – in overview. Barnabus, the son of encouragement:

  • Barnabus the one who listens to the Holy Spirit and liquidates an asset to help the church – so that there are no needy people among them.
  • Barnabus who advocates for Paul the converted persecutor.
  • Barnabus who is sent to Antioch to check out this new multicultural church – and who fetches Saul from Tarsus to come and teach the new church – because he knows Saul has more to offer as a teacher.

What an encouraging man!

So when there is a famine as we read in the last part of our reading from Acts 11 – who do they get to help?

Listen again:

  • Act 11:27  During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.
  • Act 11:28  One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)
  • Act 11:29  The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.
  • Act 11:30  This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Here’s the key verse: Act 11:29  The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.

And Barnabus and Saul take the gifts to the elders of the church in Judea.

The modern Barnabus Fund encourages the church throughout the world, especially those who are persecuted. If figures that when the church is persecuted physical needs are part of the equation. Our gifts – according to our abilities – with our prayers – will help our brothers wherever the need is.

Persecution is not an exception or a modern scourge alone. It’s been there since the beginning. Did you pick up the links in the readings?

The Gospel reading speaks volumes. We’re all at risk of falling away.

  • Mat 13:18  “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:
  • Mat 13:19  When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path.
  • Mat 13:20  The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.
  • Mat 13:21  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.
  • Mat 13:22  The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.
  • Mat 13:23  But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Are you a field – or ground or soil that is rocky, or beset with thorns? It’s about the word (v 21).

If the word of God is not planted and rooted well in you and me, we too could fall away when we face trouble or persecution, says Jesus. (Verse 21).

And of course the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. (Verse 22).

Choke what? The life of the word of God which is planted in our lives.

The parable of the sower is actually the parable of the soils. It’s about us!

How much more should we not pray for those whose lives are threatened because they are Christians and help them according to our ability!

We need to be encouragers!

  • Generous here at BBP so that no one in our midst is in need.
  • Truthful – sticking up for others who are maligned because of their reputation like Saul of Tarsus.
  • Willing to see the good in every new situation like Barnabus visiting the church in Antioch.
  • Honest – when we need help and invite others to support us in our work because of their gifts that are stronger than ours – like Barnabus who fetched Saul to help the church.
  • And willing to go the extra mile – like Barnabus and Saul – to take our gifts to those in need like the Christians who were suffering because of the famine.
  • And of course to give according to our ability as they all did for Christians in need. Paul of course emphasises this in his letter to the Galatians in chapter 6: Gal 6:9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Gal 6:10  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

Our other reading today from Hebrews 10 is one of the most powerful and inspiring passages of Scripture. And when it comes to encouraging one another there’s not much that beats Hebrews 10:23-26:

  • Exhortations: Heb 10:23  Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
  • Heb 10:24  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
  • Heb 10:25  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

These are the great ‘Let us…” and “Let us not…” lines – about holding on to the hope we profess – about spurring one other on towards love and good deeds – and especially the one trap that we fall into when things are hard – we stop meeting together.

Story – 19th century Baptist — Spurgeon once visited a man who had stopped coming to worship. He tried to explain the need to hang in there to the man, but words didn’t work. So he said: “it’s like this”. He took a red-hot coal from the fire and placed it on the side of the hearth. It grew cold and black. Then he took the tongs and placed the piece of coal back in the fire – and it grew hot and glowed red again.

We need to encourage each other in all these things!

And let’s face it – our reasons for giving up are often not really as bad as having a gun at our heads with our lives threatened if we are Christ’s followers. Or being buried up to our heads and then stoned to death like a Pastor’s daughter Monica we read about in the Barnabus Fund magazine.

Listen again to the last lines of the reading from Hebrews 10:

  • Heb 10:32  Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
  • Heb 10:33  Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.
  • Heb 10:34  You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
  • Heb 10:35  So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
  • Heb 10:36  You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.

Let’s help the persecuted Church persevere. And let’s not give up on our journey either.

Amen.

Sunday Sermon 5 July 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (5)

Father God

Readings: Hebrews 1:1-5; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 6:7-15

Story: A group of first graders was asked to draw a picture of God in their Sunday School class. Their finished products contained some interesting theology. One child depicted God in the form of a brightly coloured rainbow. Another presented him as an old man coming out of the clouds. One little boy drew God with a remarkable resemblance to Superman. The best snapshot, though, came from a little girl. She said, “I didn’t know what God looked like, so I just drew a picture of my daddy.”

It would be great if every boy and girl could see God in his or her father. Sadly – it’s not so. The statistics are frightening. In Britain for example, I read this week about the statistics regarding absent fathers:

85% of children exhibiting behavioural disorders come from fatherless homes

90% of all homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes

80% of all rapists motivated by displaced anger come from fatherless homes

70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes

85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes.

The writer continues: “We live in a fatherless generation. We need to point them to God’s paternal, compassionate, restoring, gracious desire, and offer to make up that which is missing.” Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 229). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Here’s a question for you.

Which Bible story illustrates the Fatherly love of God the most? In your view?

My favourite (again I have many favourites) is Luke 15:11 ff – which is the story of the Prodigal Son.

There’s a good argument to suggest that it’s also a story of a prodigal Father – if we take prodigal to be excessively wasteful. Simon Ponsonby puts it like this:

And here is where we see what God is like: the father is waiting and watching, scanning the horizon on the edge of his land, looking longingly as he clearly has done every day since his son left. When he catches the silhouette of his boy, knowing intimately how he carried himself and walked, the old man begins to run and run, and when he gets to his son, breathless, wet with perspiration and tears, he pauses, then crushes his pig-stinking, bag-of-bones boy in his arms of love. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 230). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

A party is thrown, because the dead son is alive, the lost son is found, and a son is with his dad! This is the most amazing good news – because this is what God is like.

David knew this when he wrote in Psalm 68:

Psa 68:5  A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psa 68:6  God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

In our series about Galatians – God is the giver. We know from other passages like John 3:16 that God the Father gives his only son. In Galatians Paul shows that the son gives himself to rescue us.  You may remember from Galatians 1: 3-4 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father

We come to him by faith (Galatians 3:26-27) – becoming sons:  Gal 3:26  You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, Gal 3:27  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 

  • And then the focal verse in Galatians 4:6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father. The spirit is given to the sons of God – so that we can become all we were meant to be.

And – interestingly enough – in this early epistle you can see the formation of a doctrine of the Trinity, even though the term is not used. God the Father of our Lord Jesus is at work. The son is given to rescue us, and the Spirit is given to transform us.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE CHRISTIAN TODAY?

In simple terms, three points!

  1. It’s all about grace.

We don’t have the issues that the Galatians had – whether we need to become Jews in order to become Christians, or whether we are overloaded with burdens from trying to keep the law as they did. The church today is in no immediate danger of over- keeping the laws of the Old Testament in every detail. Too many ham sandwiches in church pot luck suppers? Men’s breakfast would never be the same here without that amazing bacon!

Whatever the law we follow, we will certainly not keep it on our own. We’re not able to. If it is by our doing, then we are setting aside the grace of God. As Paul says in Galatians 2:21:  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

  1. It’s all about the truth of the gospel

What we do have from our travels through the letter to the Galatians is a real sense of the truth of the Gospel as something to be treasured and guarded against wrong teachings. There are no substitutes or additions that can be made. The gospel came at the right time in every way.

The gospel, like the exodus from Egypt, is a rescue mission so that we can be set free from our enslavement to the power and consequences of sin. It is initiated by God. At the right time.

Listen to Galatians 4:4 again: Gal 4:4  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law

And listen to Hebrews 1 again: Heb 1:1  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, Heb 1:2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

God initiates this rescue. We who are not Jews – in other words Gentiles (to whom Paul is specifically sent with the Gospel message) – are equally bound and captive. Our wrestling is with sin, the devil, and his minions.

We equally need to be set free. And only God can do this. We are enslaved, and need to be liberated.  We too worship other gods – create our own idols of every sort.

The fact that the Galatian gentiles choose to remain slaves by going back to circumcision and thus the pre-Messianic faith is helpful for us as a warning. We have to hold on to the truth of the gospel.

  1. It’s all about our relationship with God

We do have this – this is the most important thing today: we have a model for prayer and living in an intimate relationship with Abba, Father.  (And of course the Lord’s prayer begins: ‘Our Father’”)

The word Abba is an Aramaic word and is only used three times in Scripture. Galatians 4:6, Romans 8:15. Guess what the other verse is? Yes it’s in the garden of Gethsemane when the firstborn only begotten son wrestles in prayer with his looming execution.

Mar 14:36  – “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And then these two from Paul: Gal 4:6  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

He unpacks this in his later letter to the Romans in chapter 8: Rom 8:14  because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. Rom 8:15  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Rom 8:16  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

What a privilege that we can pray like Jesus did. The Holy Spirit cries “Abba” though us. (Galatians) And we can cry “Abba!” (Romans) Simon Ponsonby, who you recall came out from the UK for New Wine Festival again last year – puts it like this:

This passage unveils to us perhaps the most beautiful and glorious insights into the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Through faith, the believer has been justified (Romans 3– 5; Galatians 2: 16; 3: 6) and simultaneously has received the Spirit (Romans 5: 5; Galatians 3: 2). They have moved from being slaves, living in fear and servitude before the Law and the devil, to being free sons of God.

Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 231). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Free sons of God – with Jesus as the elder brother in the family. What a privilege to be his children. (We have to learn about freedom in the light of all this. More about freedom later as we go through this letter together.)

This new status of adoption is rich with historical cultural baggage – adoption under Roman law conferred full rights to inherit on the adopted child.

He adopts us. We can’t choose Him. Most of all is the simple fact that He chooses us. (John 15:16  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…)

We can’t earn it or buy our way in to the family. He has redeemed us. He pays the price for our freedom.

This is the gospel – that we are saved into an intimate relationship with the Father. And we have the inner witness of God’s spirit – that blessed assurance – as Paul says in Romans 8: 8:16  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Conclusion (Quoting Simon Ponsonby)

We have been made sons of God; a party has been thrown in our honour, with status, dignity, inheritance, and authority conferred on us. We can live like sons in the Spirit or like slaves – it’s up to us. The Galatian Christians chose to live like slaves. The second son in the parable of the prodigal chose to live like a slave, bemoaning “all these years I’ve slaved for you” while in fact “all the father had was his”. Such a revelation of our position before God, on the basis of the decree of the Father, the death of the Son, and the deposit of the Spirit, should revolutionize our lives. God is Abba – our Father. I am his son, not his slave. I serve him freely and without fear – I relax in my sonship: security, identity, inheritance, and freedom from anxiety and fear.

Being God’s own sons should cause us to wonder and worship with all our heart. It should cause us to walk with our head held high, that such dignity has been conferred upon us, sons who perpetuate God’s name and inherit his estate. It should compel our passionate witness to this broken, lost, fatherless generation. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 234-235). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

It also means that this Abba, Father, is one in whom we need to rest.

He knows our needs before we ask! (Mat 6:8  Do not be like them (the pagans), for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.)

And if we go astray – he is always longing for us to return. Like the prodigal Father and his prodigal son. It’s interesting that in Luke’s gospel when the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are recorded, there is this wonderful verse:

Luk 15:10  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Amen

IF you feel astray – lost – if you don’t have that intimate relationship with God through Christ and His spirit, there is always today!

Sunday Sermon 21 June 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (3)

Readings: Acts 11:19-26,  Acts 13:1-3; Galatians 2:11-21

Sermon

I once went to two mental asylums in one day. No –  I was not looking for a bed or room. I was completing a Masters in Pastoral Counselling and Psychology, and it made sense to visit the places where people were locked away for their safety and ours. There were all kinds of people who thought they were prime ministers or famous heroes – one lady claimed to be Margaret Thatcher.

Which reminds me of the story of Margaret Thatcher visiting a retirement home – and introducing herself as the British Prime Minister. Thatcher spoke to one of the inmates and asked him: “do you know who I am?” The patient replied: “No, dear, but I should ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”

I don’t think any of us really would know what it must be like to learn again from scratch who you are – say after an accident where you lose your memory. Amnesia is the word.

These lines from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are actually quite difficult to understand – precisely because they involve losing one identity and gaining another.

Refugees have to work on that don’t they – and oh my there are a lot of them trying to get to new countries at the moment. (Just by the way, Saturday was international refugees’ day – and the numbers are higher than they have ever been.) Emigrants also have to find a new identity. This many of us know.

Paul’s conflict in this letter is not just about other missionaries with a different point of view. Or a different interpretation of the gospel. It’s about fundamental Christian identity – who you are in the Messiah Jesus.

Paul’s conflict with Peter is over the same issue – and his conflict with the churches in Galatia.

Peter had had a vision – if you remember – a sheet coming down from heaven loaded with forbidden un-kosher food. He was convinced about the need to break out of that Jewish mould. He associated with gentiles and ate with them.

But here he changes his tune – and refuses to eat with non-Jews.

In short, Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy. The word means wearing a mask. And much to Paul’s horror, his partner Barnabus, known as the son of encouragement, went along with this. For some reason they were concerned about what the Jewish contingency would think about eating with non-Jews.

The point is – the church in Antioch we read about in Acts 11 and 13 – where Paul and Barnabus were sent out from – was a multicultural church, and they certainly weren’t all Jewish. This was where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The moment you identify with this label – and call yourself a Christian – your identity shifts from being a Torah-keeping Jew or a “Gentile sinner” excluded from God’s family – into the family of the New Covenant – your identity is in the Messiah Jesus.

We used to sing a song years back about this shift. “It’s no longer I that liveth – but Christ that liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20 from the KJV).

I’m not sure that I understood back then. The key verse is Galatians 2:20, which lines up exactly with Paul’s teaching on baptism in Romans 6.

Gal 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. He goes on to say: Gal 2:21- I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

If we have died to our old selves, then our new identity is “in Christ”. In fact that phrase “in Christ” is key to all of this. Listen to Paul elsewhere:

  • Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
  • Rom 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
  • 1Co 1:30 It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

And probably my favourite:

  • 2Co 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Those who are “in Christ” – Christians – are part of a new fellowship, a new covenant and a new family.

Tom Wright reminds us that the identity marker for Jews was circumcision. The identity marker for Christians is faith. He continues:

And if we are ‘in’ the crucified Jesus, that means that our previous identities are irrelevant. They are to be forgotten. We are no longer defined by possession of the law, or by its detailed requirements that set Jew over against Gentile. ‘I died to the law, that I might live to God.’ We must now learn who we are in a whole new way. Who then are we? We are the Messiah’s people, with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about him is his loving faithfulness, the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, is our own loving faithfulness, the glad response of faith to the God who has sent his son to die for us. This is the very heart of Christian identity. Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 26). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

And one of the sure signs of being together in this New Covenant is to eat together. Tom Wright put it this way: To have separate tables within the church is to spurn the generous love of the Messiah. One of the marks of Jesus’ public career was open table-fellowship. God intends it to be a mark of Jesus’ people from that day to this. Wright, Tom (p. 27).

Communion is one of the special meals with profound significance. Every meal together is an intimate sharing amongst those who are family in Christ. And like the church in Antioch – our background is irrelevant!

It’s a new identity that comes with being rescued from the evil age which we spoke about two weeks back: Gal 1:3  “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4  who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age …” reaches a climax in Galatians 2:20 – “And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Kingdom New Testament).

Amen.

Sunday sermon 14th June – Paul to the Galatians (2)

Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24

INTRODUCTION

Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.

Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.

Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).

So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.

The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)

HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?

How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.

Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?

So think about Paul then.

This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!

You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.

It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!

Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.

GRACE – BRILLIANT GRACE

If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.

And so  the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13  For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14  And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

What a remarkable change in this man.

His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…

Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1  Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2  He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.

And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 

God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.

And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:

1Ki 19:11  The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14  He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15  The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.

There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.

They each had their own issues.

Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:

But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

GRACE – ABUNDANT GRACE, UNLIMITED PATIENCE

We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.

Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.

It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.

Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.

…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.

We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.

In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.

Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at Galatians 1:3-4 – Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.

Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.

As do we!

Amen.

AMAZING GRACE

Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.

(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)

Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.

References:

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

https://www.udemy.com/courses/ Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course  NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.

Sunday sermon 25 May 2014 – The reason for the hope that you have

Readings:  Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Message

Fifty years in church.

50 sermons a year.

A possible 2500 sermons.

What possible difference will this one make today?

That’s a fair question. It will make no difference to those who’re not here. It will make little difference to those who are asleep in the sermon slot.

It will make little difference to those who have pre-read the text and get frustrated because I don’t say the things they think I should say.

Well I’ve said this before. You don’t remember every meal you’ve had, but the food did keep you going somehow. God does use preaching as a way of reaching people with the Gospel.

Trouble is the people who need to hear the Gospel are not here either.

They’re out there in the community.

I love the passage from Acts set for today. The verse before (verse 21) says this:

Act 17:21  All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.

It’s a lovely comment. The point is Paul was there – and after walking around he speaks into their situation like this:

Act 17:23  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

And off he goes with his sermon.

I suppose the culture and context allowed that. Today the same thing happens when people are actually on the lookout for opportunities to engage the society we live in.

It’s in the pubs and clubs that the conversations take place. For some of you it’s in the dining halls of your retirement home – or in the supermarkets.

For some more IT savvy it’s on the internet on web pages and chat forums.

Paul talks to them of course about an altar to an UNKOWN GOD.

Now we could have a great theological debate about that today. We could talk about “other gods” and other faiths – whether there are really other gods- or just skewed views of them.

MIssiologists do this. They study Mission and how the gospel connects with other people’s faiths and world views.

We talked about Missional church too – and debated it in leadership – about how the church would reach this generation.

The truth is more than two years of debate about how relevant the church is to younger people has actually worn me out. So much blame was thrown around that what I offered here on Sundays was not relevant or modern enough.

Hours and hours I spent on power points which for some of you were merely a distraction.

Lucky for you I’m on the 40 hour famine of food and technology this weekend.

So you just get my voice today.

My point is this – in all this time how many people have we actually led to Christ?

How many people have we actually witnessed to?

Some of you are good witnesses – keep going. Well done!

But most of us are pretty average or less than average.

In the readings today Paul preached a great sermon. The gospel went out. It matters not how they responded. Some believed – others tried to kill the messenger on his preaching trips. Some said they wanted to talk to him again about the message he brought.

Paul’s missionary journeys were full of adventure risk and pain. In a discussion in 2 Corinthians he writes this:

2Co 11:24  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.

2Co 11:25  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,

2Co 11:26  I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.

2Co 11:27  I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Last week we read of the martyrdom of Stephen. His was such a bad sermon that they stoned him. Perhaps you’ll want to throw something at me today. Go right ahead.

God used the people who were scattered after the persecution that followed Stephen’s death to plant one of the most important churches – the one in Antioch. If you came to Tuesday church this month you would have heard that message.

God honours his Word.

Stephen never saw the fruit of his labours. He saw rocks fall on his head. Then he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God! Standing note! Not sitting. Chances are Jesus was putting in a word for this faithful spirit-filled deacon who also was a teaching elder.

SO WHAT ABOUT US?

A couple of essential things about our mission and witness jump out of the readings today. The first one does more than jump out. It screams at us.

1Pe 3:15  But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

1Pe 3:16  keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

This only works if the first part applies.

Remember what we talked about last week? Where are you hanging yourheart? Remember my story of the hat and coat stand it took me two hours to assemble?

Your God is where your heart hangs – said Luther.

Peter says: But in your heart set apart Christ as Lord.(v 15)

Αγιασατεis the word. Honour Christ in your heart. Sanctify him as Lord. Set apart comes from the word for holy – which does not mean perfect but “set apart” or even dedicated.

If you haven’t done that – the rest won’t happen.

Here’s the outflow of this:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Listen to it again!

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Well do you have hope?

Does it ooze from your lips and shine out of your eyes and roll of your tongue – hope – hope – hopeful –hopeful – hopefulness and more hopefulness!

Does it?

Are people saying to you? WHY WHY WHY can you be so positive when things are so bad! It’s soooooooooo bad after all. I’m soooooooo blue.

The church – the economy – my marriage – my spouse, you may say – if only you knew how blue it all makes me!

No – says Peter (writing to a persecuted church – I hasten to add).

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

AND OF COURSE:

But do this with gentleness and respect,

1Pe 3:16  keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

There’s no need to be arrogant. Or rough with people with different views. In fact we should respect them.

All we should do is be is:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

Challenging isn’t it?

And if Jesus were speaking to us this morning – once Peter has unnerved us with his reminder of how we should be a witness to Christ – who is the reason for our hope, is He not?

Jesus would say – as He did in John 14:

Joh 14:15  “If you love me, you will obey what I command.

That creates a few problems does it not? No – it’s not another attempt to make us wither away in shame.

John 14 is the most amazing passage.

It started with “Do not let your hearts be troubled”.

And here it speaks words of such power and encouragement again:

Joh 14:16  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever—

Joh 14:17  the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

Joh 14:18  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

It’s this last verse that gets to me.

It’s this last verse that gets to me. I was lying in bed the other night with tears in my eyes as I thought of children I know who have lost both parents – and the kids without parents because of AIDS and war – and so many other horrible things that happen – and this scripture was in my head:

Joh 14:18  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

Jesus’ promise to us that we will have the spirit of truth in us and with us is profound.

There’s no need to pray for God to be with us. He is!

We’re just not always with it. Our eyes and hearts are not always open.

Even in witnessing – especially in witnessing – He promises to lead us. Did Jesus not say in Luke 12:

Luk 12:11  “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say,

Luk 12:12  for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

As we are nearing the end of the Easter Season – the finality of Jesus’ departure becomes more pressing.

We’ll be here on Ascension Day on Thursday night – a very special day in our calendar – because Jesus leaves them to be the exalted King of kings and Lord of Lords.

That in itself speaks volumes about where we hang out hearts.

But of course the waiting follows – and His promise not to leave them as orphans is fulfilled at Pentecost.

Here’s the key. It’s the presence and power and person of the Holy Spirit working in us.

When He has his way – then there is no fretting “O dear I am not a good witness”. Rather there is a natural (supernatural) boldness in us.

Then we will need more than two services if people come in here seeking what we have – that which gives us hope.

I’m not sure that we actually believe it to be possible. It’s called revival.

If requires faith to walk down that road. And even Jesus was hamstrung by people in places where they had no faith.

So the challenge remains for us. When we come alive to these things by His Spirit – then the world is somehow changed as we walk out of the door! Not that people become victims of potential bible bashing.

But that the people of hope begin to shine – and these portable light houses cause a commotion as others say –“tell me why you’re so different?”

Amen.

11 May 2014 – On sheep and shepherding

Readings: Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25;  John 10:1-10

The shepherd.

So why shepherds and sheep?

Is this some kind of Middle Eastern religious scheme?

Or does Christianity only make sense for rural people?

In all three readings today the shepherd is mentioned.

In the Old Testament Psalm. In Peter’s letter. And most famously the words of Jesus in John’s gospel

Of course the gospel reading mixes metaphors happily. Jesus is the gate too.

What are the main issues – the key things that we need to take for ourselves?

  1. We start with Peter.

Quite appropriate this week as the bishop of Rome recently made two new saints of previous bishops of Rome. And there was a retired bishop of Rome there.

The Pope is the bishop of Rome. Peter was given the job first (Catholics would agree on this) when Jesus reinstated him after his betrayal. Remember the words so powerful?

Joh 21:13  Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Joh 21:14  This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Joh 21:15  When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Joh 21:16  Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

Joh 21:17  The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

Joh 21:18  I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, fed my sheep.

This is Jesus after the resurrection still using that shepherding picture.

He would have learned it from his parents – who would have been his faith teachers. Maybe they recited Psalm 23:

Psa 23:1  מזמור לדוד-   יהוה רעי לא אחסר

A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Psa 23:2  בנאות דשׁא ירביצני על־מי מנחות ינהלני׃

Psa 23:2  He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

Psa 23:3  נפשׁי ישׁובב –   ינחני במעגלי־צדק למען שׁמו׃

Psa 23:3  he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

The shepherding touch of the LORD Yahweh that David knew as a relatively young boy.

  • Lacking nothing,
  • being refreshed and
  • rested in green pastures and quiet waters – comes out of faith that is a real trust and dependency.

It certainly is a kind of nurturing – which comes through in Jesus’ commission to Peter.

The result is PASTORAL CARE – and pastoral comes from the word for shepherd.

It’s crept into society in all kinds of places – especially schools – since the British started using it in the 1960s in their education systems. Google pastoral care and you will get information of the NZQA’s code of conduct for pastoral care of international students, apart from usage in other organisations. For example on the website of the British Law Society you find this:

Pastoral care – for solicitors – 020 7320 5795

Solicitors can call us for information on personal, financial, professional and employment problems. We will refer you to the most suitable helpline for your needs.

We’re here to help solicitors – 09:00 to 17:00 weekdays.

– See more at: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/advice/helplines/#sthash.2pmNJZcU.dpuf

I think that lawyers definitely need pastoral care!

The church’s view developed of course through history.

The bishops (or overseers) had a shepherd’s crook symbolically. This morphed into crown like tiaras (as in the triple crown) as they become more influential in worldly politics. So much so that the Bishop of Rome is a head of state today.

 

  1. What about the Presbyterians?

So what makes us different?

It’s the “presbyter” in Presbyterian that defines us.

A “presbyter” is an elder. So we are an elderian church.

Never mind Peter the shepherd for a while. Let’s look at Paul:

1Ti_4:14  Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

1Ti_5:17  The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

Tit_1:5  The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Peter and James do refer to them off course:

 Jas_5:14  Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

 Of course Peter does make the link.

 1Pe_5:1  To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:

1Pe 5:2  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;

1Pe 5:3  not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

In fact Peter uses all three words as an explanation of the role of Christian leaders:

Elders – shepherds – overseers

Πρεσβυτερους– ποιμανατε– πισκοπουντες

In fact “elders” is a noun here. The other two are verbs or actions – shepherding and overseeing!

1Pe 5:1  πρεσβυτερουςAουν TSBτους εν υμιν παρακαλω ο συμπρεσβυτερος και μαρτυς των του χριστου παθηματων ο και της μελλουσης αποκαλυπτεσθαι δοξης κοινωνος

1Pe 5:2  ποιμανατε το εν υμιν ποιμνιον του θεου AεπισκοπουντεςTSBεπισκοπουντες μη αναγκαστως Aαλλα TSBαλλ εκουσιως Aκατα Aθεον μηδε αισχροκερδως αλλα προθυμως

1Pe 5:3  Bμηδε TSAμηδ ως κατακυριευοντες των κληρων αλλα τυποι γινομενοι του ποιμνιου

The word “bishop” of course is episcopos (hence Episcopalian church in America).

And of course the book of Acts – where there is a switch from talking about the Jewish elders who were in conflict with the early Christians – to Christian elders who looked after the church:

Act_11:30  This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Act_14:23  Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Act_15:2  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Act_15:4  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

Act_15:6  The apostles and elders met to consider this question.

Act_15:22  Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.

Act_15:23  With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.

Act_16:4  As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.

Act_20:17  From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Act_21:18  The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present.

Later in Acts “elders” once again refers to Jewish elders:

 Act_23:14  They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.

Act_24:1  Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor.

Act_25:15  When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned.

  1. So what does this mean:

The cure or care of souls – pastoral care – is the task of the ministry of the church. In the late 7th century Pope Gregory the first wrote a manual effectively on pastoral care, which influenced the church throughout history.

This “cure of souls” is closely linked to healing.

By implication – salvation and healing go together. In fact the word in the New Testament is the same.

So healing was more holistic before modern western medicine took control of it. When you were sick before this – you were more likely to be cared for by Christian ministers of some sort.

“Pastoral Care” is about shepherding.

About teaching, nurturing, admonishing and protecting Christians so that they grow closer to God and more like Jesus.

And in the elderian / Presbyterian church – the elders do this together.

Isn’t that good news.

You can receive ministry from a number of people – and not just the Minister.

In other words you can receive pastoral care from a number of people – not just the Pastor.

In the last line of the reading from Peter today the apostle – the catholic bishop of Rome or first pope (in their view anyway) says this:

1Pe 2:25  For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

Jesus remains the main shepherd – after all only he lays down his life for his sheep/friends – and overseer of our souls!

The word “overseer” there is “bishop”.

Yes he is Bishop Jesus!

And unlike other bishops – he is crowned! He can carry a sceptre and rule as King!

Confession time:

We don’t always do this stuff well. Our fault entirely. You can hang around here for quite a while and still not know who the elders are.

We will be making the names and some useful information about our elders to you in due course.

  • Some of you have an allocated elder who is supposed to care for you.
  • Others are in home groups – and they are all led by elders.

So there are options.

What we don’t do:

We don’t live in a parish any more.

Since the 4th century priests were allocated a section of the diocese called a parish. The word parish comes from the greek word παρоικία meaning district.

In that system if you lived in the district – a geographically defined area – you were in that Parish. Parish records were kept about people in the parish – and if you moved out of the area – you ended up in another parish.

The world has changed:

Consumer driven issues drive peoples’ church attendance. They travel long distances to go to the church of choice.

I don’t blame them really. And we don’t all live in the same area – people do travel. And we’re not going to draw a line on a map and send you to another church – like they do with school zoning.

But there is a different approach. It can be like this: I belong where I can be part of a community that really cures and cares for my soul.

Where I put roots down and build genuine relationships.

No more pretence. No more sweet smiles and “fine thank yous” when in fact I am suffering greatly.

  • Where I can know people and be known in a little flock of some sort – where we live out this Christian life with integrity. Honesty. And real care.
  • Where I grow in faith and knowledge – and can be strong and safe from the attacks of the enemy and of false shepherds who are wolves dressed up in some other outfit.

The home group remains the best place for this. And the wider church family forms the extended family for this.

So that when it happens as in Psalm 23: I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – I will know that Jesus is with me because his co-shepherds and other sheep are there for me too – helping me to care for my soul until the end.

And if you translate that verse 4 in another valid way –and I walk through the valley of deep darkness (in depression, grief or pain of any sort) – I can know the reality of the Good Shepherd with me not in isolation but in community where co-shepherds sustain me in love and prayer and acceptance – where the church is a hospital for the sick seeking to get better – and not a rah-rah party for people who think they have solved everything in their lives. Because they haven’t.

So there it is. We don’t have saints we pray to. Or reformer fathers railed against that. We do have saints we pray with – the people of this little flock.

Come out – people – from the isolation of thinking you have to go it alone – stiff upper-lip and all that – and be yourself in this family.

We all need feeding, care, and nurture. We are in regular need of forgiveness! We do behave as goats – even if it’s just because of our but-but-but arguing with God or the truth.

Please – I can’t offer you a new-fangled formula or super-cure and solution in life.

I’m not called to.

I’m called as the teaching-elder to lead you in the process of equipping a nurturing – building up the body of Christ in every way.

I rail against those who offer three easy steps in paper-back form.

I can only offer you a community where you can take some risks together – as we step by step get closer to the goal.

Under the headship of Bishop Jesus.

Amen.

Sunday Sermon 6 January – The revelation

Readings:  Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-112

So have you had any major revelations recently? I’m not talking about a sudden realisation that you are getting older – or that you have to pack up that Christmas tree as it is 12 days since Christmas day today and Christmas as a season is officially over!

I’m talking about revelation! Seeing the light maybe – like the wise men who followed the light of that star!

For Paul – in the reading from Ephesians – the revelation he received was the unveiling of a mystery. Verse 6 tells us the details:

6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

For Him – as a Jew and a Pharisee – he needed a revelation! Like Peter needed a vision when it came to changing his mind about associating with Gentiles.

You have to understand that they had nothing to do with Gentiles! Like we in our own way don’t associate with people who are different.

This was a radical shift – and the shift is seen at the time of Jesus’ birth – the wise men – the magi who come to worship Jesus – are Gentiles, perhaps Gentile kings – and they are worshipping a Jewish baby.

What really grabs me in the Ephesians reading today is verse 12:

12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

The NRSV gives us this translation of verse 11 and 12:

3:11  This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,

3:12  in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

I prefer this version.

The key word which resonates with modern people is the word ACCESS.

Think of all the times you get the message ACCESS DENIED – on your modern phone, internet, on an ATM – if you don’t have the right password access is denied.

In Christ we have access to God!  Great news! And Paul expands this by saying – “with boldness and confidence through faith in him!”

The idea that non-Jewish people could have access to God is radical! And we are non- Jewish Gentile people too!

This is stunning news – …we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.. . This is the mystery that was revealed to Paul – the revelation from God that shifts the foundation of everything.

Paul also says this in Galatians 3:27-28 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

All these barriers come tumbling down!

And – sadly – we keep putting them up again! We create new ones or reinterpret the ones we read about in Galatians 3.

The idea that God wants people of all backgrounds and cultures to be part of his family should not be a major surprise for us.  It does not take a revelation to figure out the basics. If you think about it – the fundamental teachings of Jesus are about breaking down barriers.

Think of his teaching in a nutshell –

  • a new commandment I give unto you – that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 13:34 – repeated in John 15:12 & 17)
  • He reinforces the Old Testament teaching – love your neighbour as yourself. (Lev 19:18 repeated in Matt 19:19  & 22:39 and Mark 12:31)
  • He takes it further by telling us to love our enemies. (Matt 5:44 & Luke 6:27,35)

And the most famous parable that undergirds his teaching? I’m not sure what you would choose – I would say the Good Samaritan.

A friend of mine wrote about this from a different perspective this week. In short, Jesus was a great story teller. The idea of someone walking from Jerusalem to Jericho is absurd. That they would get mugged is quite likely.

The real issue is the question that churches like to pose – who are our neighbours exactly? And the contrast between the failure of the religious men to help with the kindness of the Samaritan is radical! More than that, the Samaritan would have been expected to finish the guy off.

They (Jews and Samaritans) would have despised each other. My friend concluded:

A “good Samaritan” is NOT simply someone who does something good. A Good Samaritan goes the extra mile for someone whom he himself could legitimately despise.

 And his application:

1. Find and serve your enemies.

2. Visit your prejudices and repent of them

Some great challenges for the New Year then?

As we celebrate the amazing access we have to God – let’s not be selfish! We have a treasure that is meant to share – the Good News of Jesus.

Let’s really ask God to shine a little light on our lives – revealing to us a new sense of urgency to be obedient – and to reach people that are on His heart.

  • To deal with our prejudices
  • To step out into new adventures as we reach people who are different this year.
  • And as we reach out to people we don’t like or who don’t like us – and serve them.

A WORD ABOUT PASSION

Here’s a thought. Paul is writing from jail. He’s in jail for proclaiming what had been revealed to him.

That’s passion. He writes this profound letter from prison. And – to top it all – this whole letter is not an essay on theology. Yes it is an essential letter for us to understand what we are meant to be as the church.

These passages are in the context of a prayer –are bracketed by prayer.

That’s what made him who he was. That’s his heart. He was compelled to share the revelation that God wanted all people in His family – and that he made this possible through Jesus. Hence his prayer and his appeal for his readers’ prayers for him!

 HERE’S MY NEW YEAR’S VISION and DREAM!

Are we going to politely listen to another 52 sermons this year untouched?

Going from here saying – well that was interesting?

Or will there be an impact on our lives, our lifestyle, our passion and our prayer life – which is the same thing as our relationship with God. A revelation! Will we get it? Will you get it??

Is your view of God big enough to grasp the potential for real transformation of yourself and this community.

Read Ephesians 1:15- 19 – does this not grab your attention? People’s prayers reveal their passion!

And then read Ephesians 3:13- 21 – and get a sense of the expectation Paul had as he prayed.

And the letter ends with his teaching on the armour of God:

It ends with this in chapter 6, verses 18 to 20:

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Being in Jail did not deter Paul when it came to passion to proclaim this revelation!

Roll on 2013!

May God speak to you and fill you with a taste of this passion and excitement!