Saturday, 27 August 2011

Sunday 28 August 2011, Trinity 10, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-end, Bruce

I had a conversation yesterday with someone about how to whistle. Famously you put your lips together, but not everyone finds it easy to make a noise. And how do you learn to dance? You can read about it, talk about, be shown it and guided through it, but some people ‘get it’, and many more don’t. It is true of riding a bike or even learning to walk; little ones pretend, or ‘glide’, emulating what they see others doing.
In the same way it is difficult to learn to love. Paul says love should be sincere. The word he uses, anupokritos , is used six times in the bible, of faith, of wisdom, and especially of love. It is related to hypocrisy, a pretence or acting out of something untrue, and it means to be without pretence or dissimulation, or falseness.
There all sorts of reasons to pretend to love. I have not been watching the series about the Borgias on television, but it seems obvious that if you are not a Christian but want to be promoted within the church, you need to give the appearance of loving. Robert Browning imagines a smiling Spanish monk, who says to himself about another brother:
Gr-r-r — there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
Then again, you might consider that politeness is the opposite of love. There is a theory that America is a well ordered society because so many people carry guns; the result is that you are careful not to insult others because you might end up in a duel. If this is true, it is not that you feel affectionate towards others but that you are afraid of death. We do something similar in polite society when we obey the rules of courtesy to avoid giving offence and facing social death, or at least embarrassment. We even say there are things we should not discuss, such as politics or religion, or money; we are really offering an outer pretend image of ourselves so that the real us inside is not revealed. This is the opposite of the Christ-like, all-accepting love which we can never earn or deserve but which he chooses to lavish on us.
So our passion, our prayer is to learn to love. We catch the flavour of that from the second half of the verse: Hate what is evil, literally shrink from it. Imagine the most revolting thing, that the sight or smell of repulses you. That is how we are to respond to evil, at an instinctual level. Like Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s wife, we run screaming from all that is evil. In the same way, we find ourselves responding in our deepest beings to God’s generous love. Do not try to love, we do not need to act lovingly, we just find ourselves acting out of love.
Who can be like this? Those who are led by the Spirit, who offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, who are thrilled to find themselves to be part of the body of Christ.
What does this love look like?
Mary Hinkle Shore comments: “Surrounded and upheld by this undeserved and steadfast love, then, the community of Jesus Christ practices love. "Let love be genuine," Paul says in Romans 12:9a, and then he spends the rest of the chapter describing sincere, non-hypocritical love in various spheres of the Christian life. The imperatives in this reading relate to four circles of relationships: (1) kinship within one's own Christian community, (2) hospitality to "the saints," that is the Christian community beyond one's own closest brother and sisters in Christ, and to strangers, (3) blessing directed to one's enemies, and (4) peaceable interactions with everyone.”
First, we live as brothers and sisters within the Christian community. We prize every opportunity to go beyond the conventions of mere politeness, to know each other as we really are, and to love each other anyway. As John Ortberg says, everybody is normal until you get to know them. The number of times that folk leave a church or group because they cannot get on with others – that’s the whole point of offering our bodies as a living sacrifice. We are devoted to one another in love. We honour one another. We serve each other with enthusiasm and joy. We care for each other when suffering and sickness come. It is the difficulty, the near impossibility of this, that drives us to our knees in prayer, leads us to meditate on the lessons God is teaching us. The main reason that folk come to trust in Christ is that they encounter communities of folk who are truly, sincerely, living out this life of love. They are Christ centred, passionate about learning from Christ as disciples, motivated to serve Christ’s body the church as ministers, determined to do all they can to build up the community, the koinonia, which is the body of Christ, and motivated by Christ’s love for all to share his love with others by engaging in evangelism. As we look around at the family that God has placed us in, we will be doing what it says on the tin if we stop merely acting in a loving manner and just live the life of the Spirit, whose fruit is love.
Of course, God’s love reaches out beyond our immediate circle. Paul spent time and energy raising money for the church in Jerusalem of which he was not a part. We respond to the needs of others outside our close fellowship, although in a very small way. 97% of our income is spent on the work of St Michael’s; the remainder is our share with mission partners across the world. Some are good causes but a bit anonymous, such as the Bible Society or Tear Fund. Others we have good relationships with such as Connect or CYFC locally, or the Macau Prison Fellowship. We would like to do more, as the proper response to love. As we grow in this area, so we will each perhaps be able to contribute more and find that our meagre offerings are multiplied across the world.
God’s love reaches out to his enemies, and so does ours. In work situations, in families, in the roads where we live, even perhaps in church, things are said and done that are deeply upsetting. We can try hard to respond lovingly, but we will fail. We can admit our inability to love, and surrender the situation to God, asking him to sort things out. We give up the right to demand justice, knowing that our God will do this in his own time and in his own way. We seek to treat our enemies with genuine loving kindness and care, even if this causes them a burning sense of embarassment.
Finally, a sincere love is Open for All. There are no limits and no conditions. Broadcasters and supermarkets try to get us into their clubs or families to promote loyalty and stop us going elsewhere. God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike, and loves everyone. In embracing Jesus Christ, we are embracing not just those people who are like us or see things our way. We are finding that we love the foreigner, the person who is much poorer (or richer) than we are, or who has a disturbingly different lifestyle.
There is a complete abandonment, an extreme commitment in all this, to no longer be conformed to this world’s way of thinking but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is the determination to put the will of God in our lives above all else. This was what frightened Peter and led him to remonstrate with Jesus.
God give us grace to respond to his mercy, to trust in him, to allow his kingdom to come in our lives, and to respond with sincere love for him and every else.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Sunday 21 August 2011 Trinity 16 Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20, It’s your body we want. Bruce

There is a deliberate mistranslation in the first verse of our reading from Romans. In the original Paul urges the brothers to respond to God’s mercy; in this latest update of the NIV the translators have take the view that Paul would have addressed himself today to the brothers and sisters. At the same time they have corrected a glaring error in the earlier version, which read “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”. This narrowed our understanding of what Paul was trying to say. So my first point, slightly at a tangent, is that translations are an embodiment of the Word. We do not worship the text and read it only the original languages, and brook no alterations. Rather we see Jesus as the Messiah, the embodiment of the promises of God, and the words of this book as the record of different people’s dealings with him. They are inspired by God and point to the truth of God, and we depend on them absolutely, but each generation has to wrestle with their meaning.
Our reading starts with the word “therefore”, and so we should see what it is there for. Paul has been explaining for eleven chapters how merciful God has been, how we are brought salvation as we trust in Christ, as we allow his Spirit to guide us, as we depend on his promises. Even in the admittedly difficult case of the nation of Israel who seem largely to have rejected Christ, Paul argues that God is full of compassion and mercy.
Therefore, in view of God’s mercy, we should offer our bodies, each of us as individuals, as a living sacrifice. In chapter six Paul reminded us that we should each offer our bodies in service to God, or we would find ourselves forced to serve a different master – sin. So your body is important. Do not be fooled by the thinking that suggests that the body is merely a husk, of no importance, while your soul, the inner you, will live forever. Understand that your body means all of you, your personhood, and you cannot separate these things out. Who you are on the inside, in the realm of your thoughts, is reflected on the outside in your actions. In Romans 1, we are told about how people rejected the truth about God, and this led to the degrading of their bodies, which led in turn to their minds being darkened. In chapter four we read of Abraham who had faith, even though his 100 year old body was as good as dead. I heard about a man who apologised to his pastor: “I cannot get to church on Sunday, but I will be with you in spirit.” The pastor replied: “It’s your body I want, not your spirit.” A dear lady I knew in Woking used to urge us to pray and pray, but then she would add that we needed to put legs on our prayers; in other words what we think and pray is important, but so are our actions. It is of crucial importance that Jesus was born into a body, lived a real life in his body, acted only obedience to his Father; his body died and was buried. On the third day his body was raised to new life and is now in the heavenlies. This is our incarnation, salvation faith. Romans 8: 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Paul urges us to get this new perspective. We are in one sense passive in this process. This another of the NIV’s debateable translations, and perhaps should better be read as “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind.” People are concerned that if they start to investigate spiritual things they will end up being brain washed. The opposite is true! Those who do not believe the truth end up believe any old thing. Even Christians who have not firmly made the choice to serve Christ as Lord find themselves, as Robert reminded us recently, blowing like feathers in the wind. The messages we receive from parents and others, the power of advertisements, the need to keep up with the Joneses, the desire to get ahead, all these and many others, conspire to warp our thinking. It is not very different from chapter one, where Paul reminds us that all that we need to know about God is revealed in nature, but that we substitute our own versions of the truth and therefore are led astray. We sometimes seem helpless to serve God as we would like, in an echo of chapter seven. How can we change ourselves?
We cannot. We lack the power. But we can be led by the Spirit of God. We can offer our bodies to him, and allow him to work in us. This is our spiritual, or logical, or reasonable service. In other words, it takes no intelligence at all to live a sinful life that we are coerced into. Rather, we make a deliberate, informed choice, out of the freedom that the Holy Spirit brings us, to follow Christ. In contrast to the puzzles we might have about God’s will as revealed in the previous three chapters, here we are invited to test out on a daily basis God’s will in the minutiae of everyday life.
The bible has lots of advice about how to use your body. At various times we are told about our eyes, tongue, ears, hands, feet, and reminded to live pure lives because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
In this passage I think it is important that we are told to offer our bodies as a “living sacrifice”. In other words, we each offer ourselves, and together constitute the body of Christ in this place. We make Jesus real and present by the way that we live.
Obviously this has implications for how we get along. “Do not be high-minded, thinking above yourself, but think with sober judgement.” In other words, there is a sort of madness that can infect us, where we see ourselves as more important than we really are. Paul says that the sober judgement that comes from self-offering leads to that same saving faith that we share with Abraham. We discover new ways to use our bodies in God’s service. The gifts he gives us of prophecy, faith, service, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership or showing mercy, are all intended to be used by us to build up the body of Christ. I might have started out wanting to preach because I enjoy being in front of people, but I have to learn that it is a privilege to serve in this way and, as we will find out from verse 9 next week, if I preach with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing.
Similarly, if I do not take my part in serving, out of a misplaced sense of modesty and not wanting to put myself forward, I am neglecting the gifts and calling that God has given to me, to each one of us.
Each of us is called, urged, to respond to the mercies of God, to allow him to begin that process of changing us to be like Jesus, and to take our place in the renewing and building up of his body, the church.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 – Sermon for 14 August 2011 - Kim

Paul has a habit in saying NO. We know that we died to sin and that we do not need to live in sin any longer. Paul tells us to say NO to sin and temptation. Simple! So when Paul asks "Has God rejected his people?" I like his equally blunt answer: "No!" But Paul did not make this statement easily. He struggled with the objection that this gospel entails, betraying his heritage and his nation. I can see him sitting there weighing up the situation: the Jews have turned their backs on the Messiah ‘Has God abandoned Israel?’ Then Paul answers a resounding NO. But at his first answer it was somewhat limited: he is an Israelite. He knows that he has not been abandoned and other Jews like himself who have responded to the gospel are a remnant of Israel who has listened to God. But Paul is also unsettled about the notion that all the rest could be thought of as abandoned. We see hints of this in his words in 11:2a: ‘God has not abandoned his people whom he foreknew.’ How could/can God choose people and then write them off? God is a God of compassion and promises, isn’t He?

The expressions, "by no means!" or "absolutely not," which are in our bibles, are an emphatic denial which Paul utters nine other times in Romans after posing a ludicrous theological question (such as, in 9:14, "Is there injustice with God?"). Although Paul treats the questions as empathetic, still he makes us consider them, just for a moment, so he can show how crucial is their denial. We need to know why the question is so important, if we are to know why the emphatic denial is utterly crucial, for Christians and Jews alike.

Paul will have no part in a theology that implies God will not keep promises. If God will not prove faithful to promises made throughout Israel's history, Christians have no good reason to expect God will keep the ones made to us through Christ in the past or even today. God’s fidelity remains a bedrock in Paul's theology, something he learned early as a Jew and had confirmed through his encounter with Christ.

Paul poses his key question ("Has God rejected his people?") after having summed up the situation as similar to one described in Isaiah, where God waits patiently for a disobedient and unresponsive people. Paul doesn't develop much of an argument in response to the question. It's pretty simple for him. God cannot have rejected the people "whom he foreknew" (11:2), simply because "the gifts of grace and the calling of God are irrevocable" (11:29). Paul can confidently claim that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26) and will experience "full inclusion" (11:12) in God's salvation. This is good news for all people in this world. There is hope for everyone. God will wait for us, however long it takes. You might be thinking ‘He’s not going to get me!’ ‘We’ll see!’ All people will be saved. God is faithful.

Paul’s road to towards these confident assertions is out of the struggles he had with God and scripture. The same struggles we have today, when faced with a difficult situation or two similar situations and the outcome of both is different. When we search the bible for answers and find ourselves at odds because our hearts knows something of God but scripture is pointing us to something else and we struggle to find peace. To find answers. If claims about God’s fidelity and less-than-satisfying arguments about the details of God’s master plan concerning Jews who have not embraced Jesus cause Paul to struggle, why should we expect to have all our questions answered for us. Why should God just give us everything on a plate.

It’s about living with the tensions and promises of God. If you read all of Romans 11, you will read that Paul informs his readers that they would never be able to figure out what God was up to, and he called this situation a ‘mystery.’ Paul is referring to something that makes no sense on the surface but will finally one day, when God's purposes have been worked out. This mystery involves the ‘disobedience’ in which, Paul believed, some of his contemporary Jews dwelled. It involves the ‘disobedience’ of people today and as a result, the salvation of all is reliant on God's mercy and grace.

Paul's main emphasis, once again, is on God. The conclusion of the "arguments" laid down throughout Romans 9-11 comes in 11:32. However God works, and for whatever reasons God works, God works so that God "may be merciful to all" (11:32).All the handwringing in these Roman chapters, aren't just about figuring out "the status of the Jewish people"; it's about reaffirming that God calls people, all people, out of wrath, judgment, and sins, to prove God's righteousness and loyalty.

Once again we find a passage primarily about God's faithfulness, less about the successes and failures of people's faith. God is merciful.

Anyone who has presided over the funeral of a child or helped a person through a difficult situation knows how this works. We can't pretend to know all the answers, and we often make things worse by trying to explain things. But we can, we must! trust that God will be merciful. Why do we trust in this mercy? Because, ‘the gifts of grace and the calling of God are irrevocable’ and in the end, God is merciful. We might not understand how everything will work out, but God will see to it. Faith rests on hopes like this.

The bedrock, anchored in the faithfulness, the love, the mercy of God should be the central movement of any sermon. There are plenty of other things that life throws our way to make us doubt them. But we do ourselves no favours in trying to make theological sense of our circumstances and our future unless we have a God whose character rings true to statements like these.

The main point Paul says is ‘when it comes to accomplishing salvation, everything is in God's hands, not in ours, not in the hands of the church, nor in those of Israel.’ In God’s hands.

The theology of Romans magnifies God’s grace and extols His sovereignty. We should never lose the wonder of our salvation or the greatness of God. No matter how deep the valley, or difficult the battle, a vision of greatness puts joy in our hearts and strength in our soul. God knows what he is doing even if we don’t fully understand it.

7 AUGUST 2011. MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICES. -Romans 10: 5 – 15 Matthew 14: 22 – 33 - Robert

If you found today’s Epistle from Romans Chapter 10 more than a little difficult to follow, you are in good company! In his commentary on this letter, William Barclay (for example) writes: “It is agreed by all commentators that this is one of the most difficult and obscure passages in the letter to the Romans. It seems to us that what we have here is not so much a finished passage as the notes for a passage...(with) a kind of telegraphic quality...”

It is part of a longer argument designed to demonstrate from the Old Testament that the way to a right relationship with God is through faith in Christ, and not through rigid obedience to the Jewish orthodox law. And the word I would use as the key to understanding it for our purposes this morning is the word ‘CHOICE’.

A key passage which Paul draws on here is in Deuteronomy Chapter 30, verses 11 & following. In our Church Bibles it is starkly headed ‘The Offer of Life or Death’. (Have a look in your own time and you will see just how it relates). In the situation Paul was facing, you could not have both salvation through faith in Jesus and salvation through correct observance of the Jewish Law. You must choose. One way leads to life – the other to death.

1,200 years before, Joshua had called the Israelite people to make a choice which rings through the Old Testament. He called the people to renew their covenant with God and cease all worship of other pagan gods – because you cannot have both. ‘Choose this day whom you will serve’ he cries. (Joshua Chapter 24). And in a verse inscribed on a chalice Barbara and I were given for our wedding, Joshua declares in 24:15: ‘But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

Or let me take you to a service of baptism in the 2nd century as described by St Hippolytus of Rome. It is dawn on Easter Day, and the candidates have completed three years of preparation. They go down to the water, which he says should be pure and flowing. And there each candidate makes their choice. First they renounce evil saying: ‘I renounce thee, Satan, and thy service and all thy works.’ They are then anointed with the oil of exorcism. Then each turns to the east and affirms his or her faith and commitment to God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Then they go down into the water and are baptized. Then they come up out of the water and are confirmed and receive communion. They have made their choice. You can see the parallels with our services today when adults are baptized and confirmed in the same service. Our liturgy today is based as closely as possible on that of Hippolytus. It is a service of clear choice and commitment.

Now this kind of choice (or something very similar) is exactly what Paul is describing here in Romans 10 verses 9 to 13. It doesn’t matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, and so enter into an exclusive relationship with God, and the promise is that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (v.13 quoting Joel 2:32). To do that means breaking with the past and starting afresh. You have chosen the way of life.

How do we apply this today to ourselves? First of all, we affirm that it makes no difference at all who we are. In this passage the distinction is between Jew and Gentile. For us the distinctions will be different but no less clear. Paul says in verse12: ‘The same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him’ whoever they – or we - are.

I find that people tend to fall into two categories. Some feel instinctively that they are not good enough for God to bless them – possibly because they are conscious of some wrong-doing or possibly just because it is a first natural reaction. Others are the opposite, and feel that, basically, they are good people leading good lives, and that, provided they don’t do anything too way out, they will be able to call on God for help as and when needed.

But it’s clear that there is no distinction between the greatest sinner and the most upright citizen. Each of us has a choice to make. A choice that originates in the heart and mind, and then expresses itself in words as we confess our faith.

Whether it is in the context of a great cathedral or church service, or in the quiet of our own prayer-time, we begin (as those Christians I described have from the very beginning) with renouncing everything that stands in the way of our Christian faith or in opposition to it. Everything that in practice claims first place in our lives and therefore displaces Jesus from prime position.

Then, (metaphorically) we turn to the east where the sun rises and gives life to the world, and confess our faith in Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins, and rose from the dead to give us hope for the future and the assurance of eternal life, and put our whole trust in him as our Lord and Saviour.

That is the choice every Christian has to make. Perhaps it is in the context of a church service, perhaps quietly at home; perhaps in a clearly defined moment which we will always remember, perhaps more gradually over a period of time, but underlined in ink (so to speak) by a conscious and deliberate prayer.

Just as those first Christians struggled between the pulling power of the Jewish Law and faith in Christ, so our struggle today is generally between our Christian faith and the pulling power of the secular world with its different priorities, values and way of life. We are called to choice, not to a vain attempt to hover between the two – a feather for each wind that blows (as Shakespeare so neatly puts it). We have to live in the secular world and its culture without allowing its values to topple Jesus from this throne in our hearts, in our minds and in our daily living. As hard for us today as it was for those first Christians to whom Paul was writing in his letters. We are not called to be ‘hoverers’ but to make Christian choices.

But the rewards are immeasurable once that choice is made and renewed day by day. When the risen Christ is enthroned in our lives, our lives are filled by his Holy Spirit, who brings us faith and hope for the future, and love, and all things beautiful and truly desirable.

And, in the light of this, I ask again – how does this apply to us today? The news is full of financial crisis which will probably affect our lives and may well become a source of real anxiety in one way or another. We await to see the full impact and what it will mean for each of us. In Luke chapter 12 Jesus says to us: “Watch out! Be on your guard... for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he goes on to warn about the fate of those who store up material things but are not rich towards God.

To some, the idea of taking refuge in a spiritual relationship with God will seem simply escapism. – a comfort blanket. But, on the contrary, to me these words are a crucial reality check. What is the more important? When we choose our priorities in life, that choice will determine everything else. Do we store up treasures on earth or in heaven? Again it comes down to choice. And when we choose to put God first, and our faith in Christ as our first priority, and seek first the kingdom of God, the practical result is that other things – although very important – fall into their right place. We have chosen the way of life, not the way of death.

And when times are hard, the Lord of our lives comes to us (as he did to those disciples on the lake) and meets us in the storms of life. And in those times of confusion, doubt, fear and anxiety, he has a clear command: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” That is when you know you have made the right choice, because the presence, the love and the guidance of the Lord far outweighs anything this world can offer. Today we join with those disciples in the boat as we worship him and say “Truly, you are the Son of God”. As Isaiah had said long before and Paul quotes him here: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring us such good news!”