Saturday, 11 September 2010

ST MICHAEL’S. 12 SEPTEMBER 2010. ST PAUL – BEFORE & AFTER. 1 Timothy 1: 12 – 17 Luke 15: 1 – 10 Robert

I wonder what picture comes into your mind when you try to visualise St Paul. I won’t try to guess, but I suspect it isn’t quite how Paul saw himself before his conversion. In our Epistle today from his first letter to Timothy, we get a fascinating flash of autobiographical detail – fresh (so to speak) from his own lips. He describes himself as “a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent man” and then (twice) as the worst of sinners. The language is very strong and he describes a man whom, frankly, you would not want to know, let alone cross. A potential Christian? – absolutely not!

He calls himself a blasphemer, which must mean that he not only rejected outright any idea of Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, but must have used some extremely unpleasant words to describe Jesus. We get just a tiny insight into his thinking in his letter to the Galatians. It had been ingrained into him since his early lessons in the Torah, that in Deuteronomy (21:23) God had said through Moses that anyone who was hung on a tree was under God’s curse. He quotes this in Galatians 3:13 (although he draws a wonderful conclusion from it). So you have to imagine the sheer vehemence with which he must have asserted again and again that ‘Jesus was cursed by God’ when he was crucified.

He calls himself a persecutor. We read in Acts 8:3 that Paul ‘began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.’ And his reason for undertaking that life-changing journey from Jerusalem to Damascus is described in Acts 9: 1f: Paul ‘still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that, if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.’

He calls himself a violent man. His murderous thoughts against Christians clearly translated into violent actions in the way he handled these men and women whom he seized them as prisoners. Who knows in what other ways his violent nature manifested itself?

We hear a lot at the moment about this woman in Iran whom they want to stone. Buried up to the neck and then pelted with rocks of a specified size so that death does not come too quickly. We don’t know whether the stoning of Stephen (as described in Acts 7) was as organised as that, or whether it was more like a spontaneous lynching. But those taking part threw off their cloaks or outer garments, so that they could hurl rocks more effectively, and left them with Paul to look after, as he stood by watching with approval. He was very close to being a murderer.

I don’t think you or I would have seen him as a potential church leader, let alone a leader who probably had more influence on the spread of the Gospel than any other single person, ever. But the risen Christ saw him in an entirely different light. We read in Acts 9:15 that Jesus said to Ananias: ‘This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’

If ever there was a lost sheep or a lost coin, Paul was it. He was, in every sense, a ‘fully paid up’ member of God’s people. He gives us his credentials – his CV – in Philippians 3. He was a totally dedicated worshipper of God and committed member of God’s chosen people. He must have been eagerly hoping that God’s Messiah would appear.

Yet, when God’s plan came to fulfilment in Jesus, Paul refused it outright, and turned decisively against God’s purposes. Not, of course, exactly on purpose – any more than the sheep or the coin went missing on purpose – but (as he says here in 1 Timothy 1:13) through ‘ignorance and unbelief’. But entirely through grace, the risen Christ stepped in and summoned him to be his follower. What a miracle!

To the end of his life, Paul was overwhelmed by gratitude and wonder that Christ had sought him out when he was at his most violently rebellious, and - like the shepherd and the woman in Jesus’ stories – brought him back into his care, with much rejoicing in heaven.

The point of these autobiographical details here in 1 Timothy, is so that he can express his thankfulness and praise at the grace of God – grace, which is unmerited love for sinners. And now the negative and destructive elements in Paul’s character could be channelled into strength and total dedication and perseverance for the Gospel and for his Saviour, Jesus.

What are some of the things we can learn from this? For today I suggest three.

First of all, there simply couldn’t be a clearer illustration of the fact that every Christian is saved by grace, and not by our own efforts. The shepherd found the sheep, and the woman found the coin – not the other way round. Here is a wonderful affirmation in real life that God loves us so much – each one – that he comes looking for us even when we are far, far away. Surely we must have the same sense of overwhelming gratitude and praise, expressed every day and in every single aspect of our lives. Think about it as we approach Pledge Day.

Secondly, we should not be put off in our witness when someone is antagonistic to our faith – even aggressively so. How often do you read in Christian books, stories of how the most fiercely aggressive atheists have been converted quite suddenly when a Christian has had the courage to witness to them. Beneath Paul’s furious anger lay some past personal agenda which was actually very brittle. Personally I think he had been more moved by Stephen’s speech and subsequent murder than he cared to admit, and – as he travelled to Damascus – furious questions were going round and round in his mind. If people are angrily aggressive about Christianity, there is generally a reason lying somewhere in the past which is not expressed. A personal story from our own lives about the grace and love of God, and the forgiveness of sins, can sometimes break through the most unlikely fa├žade. Perhaps we should be much bolder in our testimony – think about it as we approach Back to Church Sunday.

Thirdly, God saw in Paul huge potential, where ordinary Christians saw only hatred and aggression. When we need help in the church’s ministry, we should not just be looking at the obvious people. We all have gifts for ministry and often they are not apparent on the surface. We need to pray for spiritual discernment to see beneath the surface. And there is nothing more exciting in Christian ministry than to see a person’s unnoticed gifts blossoming beyond all possible expectations when they are encouraged and we have faith in them. I could give you so many great examples from my years in parish life. You have gifts to offer – spiritual and practical gifts – and we have so many needs. If God can make something great out of a character like Paul, just think what He could do with you! – if you are open and willing, and we are perceptive and encouraging. If all the gifts in this church were being fully exercised in the power of the Holy Spirit, this church would be transformed. Think about it. Pray about it.

In conclusion, though, let us come to Communion this morning full of thankfulness for the grace and mercy of God who has sought us out and saved us like the sheep and the coin, and lavished his love and grace on us, and brought us to faith and eternal salvation. We join with Paul here in verse 17: ‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’

ROBERT




Discussion

1. What do you understand by the term ‘Saved by Grace’? How do you think it applied to Paul? Do you think it applies to you?

2. In what different way do you think our gratitude to God can be expressed – spiritually and practically?

3. We believe that every Christian has gifts for ministry. How can these best be discerned, developed and used in our church?

4. Have you any experiences to share of someone who, previously antagonistic, has now become a Christian? Describe how this came about.

ST MICHAEL’S 29 AUGUST 2010. WALKING THE TALK. ROBERT Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16 Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

We have probably all had the experience at one time or another of giving or attending a party where there has been no seating plan. It never fails to cause an element of confusion and jostling – who should sit next to who etc, and where? The Pharisee in this story had obviously forgotten to organise the table seating plans, or perhaps they didn’t have such essential things. Certainly if I were invited to some important civic event, I would definitely want to know where I was expected to sit! And at really important dinners, where you sit will indicate your status and importance, and of course, at events such as weddings, much will depend on your relationship with the host.

The advice Jesus gives in the first section of today’s Gospel from Luke 14 is, I have often felt, so obvious and – in a way – mundane, that you find yourself wondering why Luke included this advice in his Gospel when papyrus was quite expensive and you couldn’t just pop round to WH Smith and buy a pad of paper.

But, after the social behaviour strategy plan, the punch-line comes in verse 11 : “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus is constantly telling us that, in the Kingdom of God, our normal, worldly, human values are reversed – turned on their head. As Jesus had told his hearers in the Beatitudes, it is the meek (the humble) who will inherit the earth. Try telling that to your average politician, business executive or pop-star! Of course, in practice we know that usually the more exalted they are, the further they fall and the more they are humbled. They who exalt themselves will be humbled, and when – like Icarus – they fly too near the sun, they come crashing down to earth. The epitaph for most VIPs and celebrities could well be Macbeth’s reflection as he faced ruin and death: “A poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

As always for the Christian, our model is Jesus. As Paul so wonderfully states it in His letter to the Philippians (2: 5 – 11): “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even (the most humiliating and ignominious) death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name....”

The dinner party in the story is simply an everyday working out of this supreme example in a daily life.

So we have the role model of Jesus becoming a servant to us, so that we might become servants to each other and to the world outside. Hence the words of Jesus to his host that follow (verses 12 – 14): When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame – people in need who will never be able to invite you back.

This is living according to the principles of the Kingdom of God. And when you try it, sometimes wonderful things happen. The writer to the Hebrews says: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” It can be the apparently unlikeliest of people who turn out to be those who bring a special gift, or a vital message from God.

Tom Wright, whose Bible commentaries many of us are engaged with in our groups, is retiring as Bishop of Durham. He was interviewed on Friday on the Today Programme on Radio 4. He said that people are basically as religious as they ever were, but that - to be impressed and interested - what they look for are actions not words. He pointed out that the Gospels are full of the actions of Jesus, and that it was mainly those actions which drew people’s attention. And his teachings are often not ‘stand alone’ words of wisdom, but rather in commentary or explanation of something he had just done. He suggested that the outside world should be looking at what the church is doing, rather than concentrating on its internal arguments and quarrels. And in many parts of the country, the churches locally are actually doing some very impressive work. When people see that, they begin to ask why – where the motivation comes from.

The writer to the Hebrews in our epistle is just as insistent on actions. “Keep on loving one another...remember those in prison as if you were a their fellow prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering...” And he ends by saying that, as Jesus has now offered, once for all, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, the old temple sacrifices are redundant, and (verse 15), this way of living service and witnessing has become our sacrifice - a sacrifice of praise – the fruit (the practical product) of lips that confess his name (verse 15).

So, how can we put this into practice? One initiative that has clearly caught the imagination of the public is the Street Angels scheme, and it’s a very good example of how the church can serve the community in a positive way that catches the attention and positive media interest. A guest at our lunch meeting here on Thursday came up with a quotation that sticks in the mind. The church is not a cruise-liner - it’s a lifeboat! And when it acts like a lifeboat instead of a large passing cruiser, people take notice and want to know more. Our primary aim is not to seek happiness and enjoyment for their own sake. But when we serve others, we find that happiness and enjoyment come naturally as part of the Christian package.

Clearly, being a street angel is not for everybody. We need always to think of ways in which we can all both serve one another in love, and also the wider community. Our work among children is much appreciated through Butterflies already, and that work is to be expanded in mid-September to include older children. Volunteers to be present at such events, and do the simplest of jobs will be essential to make it work – look out for more information. We can keep our eyes open and our imagination at work to see who needs care, invitations or visits. Often it is something very simple, done in the name of Christ the servant, which make an impression quite out of proportion to the deed itself.

As one writer cogently remarks, in the Kingdom of God, service to others is the only kind of status – the only kind of royalty - that is recognised.


Discussion

1. What sort of actions might count as Christian service? Broaden the list as much as possible, and perhaps come up with some ideas for practical follow-up.

2. What sort of words might count as Christian service? Broaden the list as much as possible, and consider whether you need to put this into specific practice.

3. How can St Michael’s become more suitable for service to the community, both as a building, and as a congregation of people?