Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Sunday 29 January 2012, 1 Corinthians 14:1-12, Bruce

Dear Lord, help us so to encounter you, that we may daily grow in faith, hope and love, open for all that you have for us, open for all that you would teach us, open for all who seek for you, and open to follow you wherever you lead us.

To encounter God and grow in him ... This expresses the heart of what we think God is calling us to do and to be here at St Michael’s. Jesus says in our gospel reading “I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known...” (John 17:26) Jesus makes himself known by his Holy Spirit who lives in us, and helps us to work with him by giving us gifts of the Spirit.

We have given ourselves the task of looking at these through the lens of Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14. Paul says that he does not want them to be ignorant of “spirituals”, and over three chapters lays out both general principles and particular practice. In chapter 12 we saw that the gifts are many and various. Every Christian has at least one. We do not all have, or have to have, the same gifts. Some seem to our eyes to be “normal” or explainable – teaching, caring, administration, etc. Some seem supernatural, outside of our experience and hard to explain – miracles, healings, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues. The key principle is that we are all one body, and each of us has our unique and essential part in helping the whole organism to thrive. In chapter 13 we learn that it is all about mirroring the self-giving love of God – there is no place for selfish ambition or grasping for position. And now in chapter 14 we turn to a detailed discussion of tongues and prophecy.

I want to ask three questions this week:

What is this passage really about?

Why all the talk of tongues?

What should we be doing?

What is this passage really about?

All through the letter we have been hearing of the need for maturity, to go along with wisdom and abilities. Put basically, the Corinthian Christians need to grow up! A primary school in Essex has been giving elocution lessons to eight year olds; there has been a noticeable improvement in reading and writing skills since they started. The youngsters have also being going home and correcting their parents. How like the young to know all the answers, and not be slow to tell us.

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” ~Mark Twain

We saw this last week in chapter 13, “when I was a child, I thought like a child, reasoned like a child ...” and so on, and we will find that he mentions this in the second portion of chapter 14, and Kim will talk about it next week: “stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (13:20)

So this is about encountering God for real, and growing in him.

Why all the talk of tongues?

Speaking in tongues, sometimes called glossolalia, occurs when someone speaks words that they do not naturally understand, being led or helped by the Holy Spirit. It is mentioned in the Acts as occurring at Pentecost when the Spirit came upon the disciples (Acts 2), on a group in Caesarea converted when Peter preached to them (Acts 10), and on another converted in Ephesus when Paul brought them to faith (Acts 19). In addition, something about the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the new Christians in Samaria was so noticeable and impressive that a local holy man called Simon tried to buy the gift, thus inventing the sin of simony (Acts 8). Each of these occasions is subtly different, and there are records of thousands of others who came to faith with no mention at all of speaking in tongues, backing up what Paul has said, that we each receive a gift or gifts of the Spirit, and that speaking in tongues is one of them.

As you read the New Testament, you will notice that this is the only passage which gives teaching about speaking in tongues. This has led some to speculate that the church in Corinth was unique in the way that they related to or employed this gift of the Holy Spirit. Some have speculated that Paul was trying to stop or tone down their use of tongues, that it was a fundamentally pagan practice that had crept in to this one church, otherwise Paul and other writers would have mentioned it in other places. Therefore, it is argued, speaking in tongues was not a marked feature of other first century churches.

I take the opposite view. It does seem that the Corinthians spoke in tongues a lot. They seemed to have seen it as a badge of spirituality and a mark of honour. Their services seem to have been noisy, boisterous and undignified. The problem, however, was not their use of tongues, but their immature, selfish way of being. They took what was arguably a normal feature of Christian worship in the first century, and magnified it and warped it to their own ends.

We could compare this with teaching about Holy Communion. This book is the only one that gives direct and specific teaching about Communion. One explanation would be that the Corinthians were recently converted from paganism, and were engaging in this strange practice that was not a feature of other churches of the time; therefore Paul has to write to them about it. The other explanation would be that every church celebrated Communion, but that it was the Corinthians who were taking things to extremes, missing the point, acting in unloving and immature ways, and needed to be corrected.

What should we be doing?

We should follow the way of love. This means that we want to do all in our power to bless and help others around us and to build up the church. This means that we seek for the gifts that God is giving us, so that we can be useful in the service of our dear Lord Jesus. Every time that we voice the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking God to show us his will and help us carry it out.

There are two opposite extremes to avoid. One would be to act as we can imagine the Corinthian church did, shouting in unknown languages in ways that are off putting and strange, revelling in a spurious spirituality that obscures the love and self-giving nature of God. Many of us have perhaps heard of, or experienced Christian worship services that have seemed alien and even threatening. Speaking in tongues may have been a feature of these.

Another extreme would be to close our minds and hearts to the possibility that God might want to give us the gift of speaking in tongues or prophesying, so that we are not “open for all that he has for us or would teach us, or to follow him wherever he would lead us”.

We should have the innocent joy of a young child running for an embrace, and the wise all encompassing love of a grown-up.

Let us be eager to have spiritual gifts, and especially those that God is giving to each of us, to build up his church.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

SUNDAY 22 JANUARY 2012. THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL. LOVE 1 Corinthians 13: 1 - 13 John 17 : 20 – 26 Robert

This is the third in our series of sermons on the Gifts of the Spirit, and we are studying Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians chapters 12 to 14. Today we look at possibly the best known of all the chapters in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13 – Paul’s great hymn to love, as it has often been called. Two preliminary points...........

1. One of the difficulties about speaking about ‘Love’ in the English language is that it can have various meanings. ‘I love strawberries and cream’. ‘I love you’. ‘I want to make love’ – random examples with very different meanings.

Paul is writing in Greek, and the Greek language has different words for different types of ‘love’ and you will find more about that on the study sheet. But throughout his letters, Paul uses a special and rare Greek word which has come to sum up what Christians mean when we say that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves.

This word for love does not describe an intimate personal relationship. It is not in the least sentimental. It is not concerned at all with the way we feel. For example, when we are told to ‘love our enemies’ there is no expectation that we should ‘feel good’ about them – only that we should long for and pray for their highest good, rather than their destruction.

Paul’s native religious language is Hebrew – he describes himself as a Hebrew through and through (Phil. 3:4). Now the Hebrew language does not deal much in abstract concepts or principles in the way that Greek does. Its words tend to be ‘action words’. And so Paul has found a Greek word that concentrates on what love does in action – not some abstract concept of what love is, let alone what love feels like. And this chapter is not about lofty principles, let alone about our fickle and often fragile feelings. This chapter is about what love does and does not do – how love behaves in practice.

2. The love that Paul is talking about in this chapter describes the love which God has for us. God does not feel sentimental about us. His feelings for us do not waver. His love for each one of us is so great that every minute of every day He longs and works for our highest and greatest good. He sends his Spirit down upon us to urge us to make right decisions, to guide us through every circumstance of life. He rejoices with us when we rejoice, and weeps with us when we weep. It is, when necessary, tough love. When we sin, He grieves and knows that we shall probably have to live with the consequences. But when we repent and ask for forgiveness, it is gladly given, and we start again. He is a God of faith, and hope, and love.

And the highest and greatest gift that God can give us through his Spirit is the gift of that same love. We can reflect, in our lives, the same love that God has for us. That is what this chapter is about. This love is the highest gift of all, and the gift without which all the others are worthless, because we are being freely given by God’s Spirit, to live out day by day, that very same love which God has for you and me. What a privilege! What a calling! What a challenge!

Some people think ‘Oh! Love is easy – surely it comes naturally’. But is isn’t easy at all. It can be the hardest thing of all – much harder than speaking in tongues, or prophecy or miracles – or other more spectacular gifts of the Spirit. God calls us to love with the same love that He has for us – and (speaking for myself) I don’t think God finds that very easy sometimes. With that as introduction, let’s look at this great chapter, under three headings: It is love alone that counts. It is love alone that triumphs. Love alone endures.

1. It is love alone that counts

Verse 1...‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.’

The Corinthian Church thought of themselves as very spiritual Christians when they spoke in tongues. Now speaking in tongues probably sounds fairly exotic to many Christians, but let’s be clear that it is lovely, precious gift of prayer which is of infinite blessing to many, many Christians. It can be the way God’s Spirit comes to our help when we simply run out of words, or our anxieties and problems simply can’t be adequately expressed in words. Let me say clearly that your Christian life could be infinitely enriched by this gift. But you can’t earn it, you can’t make it happen, it is God’s gift which he shares out by his Spirit as He sees fit. But if a Christian, let us say, speaks out in Church in tongues (as happened in this Corinthian Church) and thinks he is being super-spiritual, but without love in his heart, it would amount to no more than a discordant clash – out of tune and without harmony. It would not be a word from God.

Verse 2...‘If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.’

The spiritual gifts of prophecy, and wisdom and knowledge, and the faith that can move mountains, are likewise good and wonderful and infinitely desirable gifts. I suspect (indeed I venture to say, I know) that there are those here this morning who have the potential to develop all these gifts. We need to pray all the time that God will reveal to each one of us what gifts the Spirit wants to develop in us. We need a faith that is more adventurous, more willing to let God take full control of our lives. But the Corinthian Church seems to have had all these wonderful gifts, yet it was a divided church that seemed to lack the one crucial ingredient that would have brought it all alive – love. It was like an orchestra where every instrument was playing a different tune and not listening either to the conductor or to each other.

Verse 3...‘If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing’.

Let’s consider just two examples which may spring to mind, whether or not they are exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words.

Firstly, our church and the church world-wide and the whole Christian mission everywhere depends on our financial support as well as our prayers. Likewise, when there is a disaster somewhere in the world, an appeal goes out for practical aid – food, shelter, clothing, and practical assistance. Again, we may know personally someone who is in need of help, whether financial or practical, and we respond to the best of our means and ability. In due course, we shall be asking for financial support to renew our church building – indeed sacrificial giving. But God is not looking so much at the amount, as at the spirit in which we respond and give. God showers everyone of us so incredibly generously with goodness, love and grace. Our giving must be the response of love to God’s amazingly generous love for us. If we really understand and appreciate the depth and wonder of what God has done for us, we will respond with all the love in our hearts. That is what will count.

Secondly, as we look back at the history of the church over 2000 years, we rightly celebrate those who have been martyred for their faith. it’s a big ask, isn’t it, to enquire whether they died with the kind of love I have been describing in their hearts. But their great role model (and ours too) is Jesus on the cross, who seemed more concerned with forgiveness for the soldiers and the fate of the criminals on either side of him, than he was for himself. The role model is there – it is love alone that counts.

2. It is love alone that triumphs

Verses 4-7..‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’.

Here is that Christian love in day to day action. Here is how love behaves in practice. God goes on loving us despite all the provocation we give him, and so must we. God’s love does not fly to the heights and then sink to the depths along with circumstances, and vary according to how others treat us. Love acts – it does not re-act as we are constantly tempted to do. It does not speak or act for effect, for show. It does not keep a mental note of other people’s past failures, so that old sins can be produced at the drop of a hat when we feel defensive or criticised. Love perseveres, believes the best not the worst, doesn’t dwell on the past, but hopes for better things in the future. Every phrase would warrant a sermon to itself. Love triumphs over all the odds.

3. Love alone endures

In verses 8 – 12, Paul contrasts the other Gifts of the Spirit which he has listed with love, and shows that it is love alone which will last for ever. We are on a journey of faith (a bit like growing to full maturity) which finds its fulfilment when we meet the Lord face to face and ‘know, even as we are fully known’. What gifts of the Spirit will we need then? All the spectacular ones which the Corinthian Christians prized so highly will have become redundant.

Just three will remain. Faith, by which Paul means that personal trust in God which will never die, rooted in the cross of Christ. Hope, by which Paul means that nothing of eternal value will ever come to an end, but all that is best and good and holy will find its place in the heavenly city through which runs the onward flowing river on whose banks is the tree of life, which is for peace and the healing of the nations, and where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Have a look at Revelation chapter 21 and 22.

But above all, eternally there shines the love of God like an everlasting light, which we have sought, however dimly, to reflect in our day to day lives, and which now finds its eternal fulfilment.

So, yes, this love can be hard to sustain in thought, word and deed, but it is the one Gift which controls everything worthwhile and gives it its value. God gives to every Christian the Holy Spirit who comes bearing wonderful gifts. But Paul’s magnificent exposition in this chapter rings down the centuries. Seek out all the gifts God gives you and put them to the fullest possible use. But over-arching them all is the greatest gift of all – the one which lasts for ever – the gift of love.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Sermon for Sunday 15 January 2012 – 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a and John 14:15-21, Kim

A little ago a decision was made to decorate. The room we were going to decorate was gloomy, in need of a lift, so we decided to go for a creamy yellow. Decision made? Don’t you believe it! The range of creamy yellow is unbelievable – ‘sunrise’, ‘narcissus’, ‘laughter’, ‘buttermilk’, ‘wicker’. Ivory’, lemon zest’, to name but a few. These were all shades of yellow, yet they were all different, each with its own subtle shade.

It doesn’t take much to see where I am going next, does it? Unity in diversity – what the church is all about, or at least what it should be. We’re all Christians – Anglican, Roman Catholics, Baptist, Methodist, Salvation Army, house church, and countless others – but we each have our own distinguishing characteristics. Within each denomination and individual fellowship, the same applies: an enormous variety of gifts, temperaments and experiences represented in every one of them. Is that a weakness? It can be, if we let it divide us, but it should be quite the opposite: a source of strength as we celebrate our unity in diversity. Imagine if there were just one shade of yellow – what an infinitely poorer place the world would be. So, with the church: we all profess Christ is Lord and all seek to follow him, but I doubt any two of us are the same. Thank God for that wonderful, astonishing and enriching diversity!

The church is God’s idea. But more than that, the church is also God’s people. To help us grasp this point, the apostle Paul in our first reading gives us the picture of the human body. He says that the church is the body of Christ: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.’ (1 Cor. 12:12).

And being part of a body – the Body of Christ – means being a member – we are given membership status. Such membership, of course, is meaningless, for belonging to any organisation should mean being involved and playing a part, all of which is worth bearing in mind when it comes to being part of the Church. We may carry the label ‘Christians’ but that by itself means nothing. We need to meet together, worship together and work together, united in the common cause of Christ. We need to offer not just our money but our time and effort, looking for ways in which our gifts can be used for the good of all. Above all, we need to make time for one another, so that we are not simply members on paper but a family in practice. To be a Christian means to be part of the body of Christ. Are we fulfilling our role within that?

Just think for a moment of your body - there are lots of different parts - hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, legs, arms etc. Each is different from the rest, yet each is needed for the special thing only they can do. Paul says it is the same in the church. Though we’re all different, each of us come together to form the body, the church. Each of us has gifts, things given by God to be used for his glory and the good of others.

One could be forgiven to thinking that Paul was thinking about Halloween, as he describes these freaky bodies, it’s the stuff of horror movies: It would be like the whole body being an eye. Just one big eye. It would be great for seeing, but it wouldn’t be able to hear or speak. Or imagine another body made up of just one big ear. The hearing would be great, but it couldn’t smell anything.

In our bodies, God has arranged all the various parts to work together, and it’s the same in the church. God has brought each of us here to be a part of this church so that as we work together, we can glorify God and help each other live for God. We need each other, we need the gifts God has given us, serving and working in so many different ways - each playing our own special part. So are you playing your part? Are you using your gifts and talents and abilities through the church? Do you know what your gift/s is/are? It might be in reading the Bible reading of the day, so that we share in the readings; it could be in singing in the choir; or praying; or hospitality; or visiting someone; or encouraging people; or teaching the Bible to the children and young people; or administration; or wisdom in decisions and serving the tea and coffee... we could go on and on...

We’re in this together - as someone once said, church is not a spectator sport. ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.’ God also calls us the work in unity with each other and our gifts. Realising that our gift is no more important than the gift of someone else. My leading the word zone is no good to anyone if you are not here to hear it, I need you to listen and prayerfully respond, just as you need me to lead the zone so you can respond! I need Jane and Carole to make me a cup of tea, and Sarah to read the Bible reading. Different people, serving in different ways, all very much needed, all important. No gift is better than the other. And if you feel that you don’t have a gift or you, for one reason or another can’t do anything. Well, take some time out to discover the gift/s God wants you to have. And remember if you can’t physically do something you can pray. Prayer is essential for the running of any church. It is the life line between God and his people. If you are not sure what to pray for, ask Bruce or someone else if there is anything you can pray for.

Above all we should encourage each other to use the gifts that God has given us so that all the pieces of God’s jigsaw can be joined together to the Glory of Him. Amen.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Sunday 8 January 2012, Gifts 1, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Mark 16:9-20, Bruce

Welcome to the first in a series of six sermons on the theme of Spiritual Gifts. As the PCC considers the next steps in the Renewal Project, we have come to realise that there is a wealth of untapped potential amongst us. There are many tasks to be undertaken to help God’s kingdom as it is expressed in this church family of St Michael’s to grow, and to fulfil our purpose, to “Encounter God and Grow in Him”. Many will fear that I am about to appeal for money, but there is a more basic appeal than that. “What can I give him, poor as I am. If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can, I give him, give him my heart.” The thought here is that each of us has been given a gift or gifts which we can use in God’s service and for the blessing of others.

When I mention the term Spiritual Gifts, many of us will think of the Greek word charismata, and perhaps of sections of the church known as “charismatic”. With this may come images of enthusiastic, relatively unrestrained worship, perhaps even “happy clappy”. We may express a preference against this, in the same way that we might not like incense or long serious sermons. Anything to do with Spiritual Gifts may seem to need a health warning!

First, charismata does not mean “spiritual gifts”. It means “gifts of grace”, or “unearned gifts”. I hope that we escaped from that Christmas trap of giving only because it was expected of us, or from that childish way of thinking that we are in some way “entitled” or “due” a present, especially if we have been good. In Christian terms, we have not been good, but God chooses to shower charismata on us, including eternal life (Romans 6:23), the calling to be his (Romans 11:29), and specific answers to prayer (2 Corinthians 1:11). There is also the major meaning of the gift of an ability, talent or calling that we can use in his service, and we will talk about that more in just a moment.

Second, in 1 Corinthians 12:1, Paul is not talking about charismata. He actually says that he does not want us to be ignorant about pneumatikos – that is “spirituals”. Nearly every translation gives this as “spiritual gifts”, and the AV used to put the word “gifts” in italics to show that they were supplying it.

One thing to say is there is a lot in the bible about spiritual gifts and the fact that God is a gracious giver. There is another Greek word (dorea) that I just don’t have time this morning to go into. The point is that Paul is not giving us a recipe, a law report, a GSCE specimen answer that can be learned off pat and reproduced exactly. Rather, he is opening the door for us to a wonderful world of possibility.

Also, we are being reminded that these are gifts “of the Spirit”. The “grace gifts” (charismata) are described as “spiritual gifts” precisely because they come from God, they are given by the Spirit. We often start a service with the words “The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us.” Although there are normal aspects of organising and planning, work and activity, to run a church or put on a service, we need to remind ourselves that this is pre-eminently a supernatural, spiritual exercise. Everything that we do is at the guidance of and made possible by the active participation of God the Holy Spirit. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints ...” On this Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus Christ, we remember especially that the Holy Spirit descended upon him. It was almost as if Jesus could do nothing until baptised, immersed, plunged into the Spirit. Neither can we. The Gifts of the Spirit, the pneumatikos are not a side issue of interest only to a few who “like that sort of thing”: they are central to our Christian walk. If we want to Christ Centred, then we need to be filled with the Spirit of Christ. Our Gospel reading is considered by some to be added at the end of Mark; the point is that the supernatural activities recorded there seem to have been regarded as commonplace in the early church.

The Corinthians have written to Paul about pneumatikos, spiritual things or spiritual gifts. We do not know precisely what they asked, but Paul is careful to steer a course that will help them to agree and be united. He is teaching us how to handle difference. A basic point seems to have been how to recognise others as truly Christian. The temptation is to only recognise others who believe and act as we do, as truly Christian. There may be some here who would visit other Christian assemblies here in Camberley this morning and wonder if this is really Christian worship. (They might think the same of us!)

So the first point is that if anyone says that Jesus is Lord, this can only be by the Holy Spirit. No matter how hard it is to believe of some folk, they are to be counted as “one of us”. This does not mean that we should refrain from disciplining those who live flagrantly immoral lives. It does not mean that everyone is automatically saved: the Lord knows those who are his and will have the final word. Our part is to love and accept. If there are those who cause us grief, then God’s Spirit works this together for good to help us to grow into the image of his Son.

The second point is that there is one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this one God bestows different kinds of gifts charismata, different kinds of service (diakoniai), and different kinds of working (energemata). God makes every snow flake unique, we make ice cubes. The armed services put everyone in identical uniform, God delights in our differences. He gives to each of us a unique palate of talents and abilities and sets us loose.

Every single one of us has been given the manifestation of the Holy Spirit – he has left his mark on us, and we have gifts and abilities to be used for the common good. Paul now lists nine gifts or abilities, and we should remember that this is not the GCSE pass list – it is not set in stone. You will find in the study material references to other lists.

Kim is going to talk next week about how we function together as part of the body, and Robert will speak in a fortnight about the essential quality, love, without which all our gifts are worth nothing.

In view of the time this morning, I am only going to review six of the nine gifts listed. I will come back to prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues in three weeks time. I remember being asked on our first ever Alpha course: “Vicar, do you speak in tongues?” I will give you my answer then. It does seem to me, though, reading what Paul has written to the church in Corinth, that there were those who spoke in tongues a lot, and others who were possibly quite dubious about it. Pauls widens the scope of the discussion.

He is talking about gifts, service and working, the activity of God in and through his Spirit-filled people. Some are given a message of wisdom, others a message of knowledge, but always by the same Spirit. Faith comes as a specific gift, to believe something that is not obvious or easy. Someone else may receive specific gifts of healings (note that no-one in scripture is said to have the Gift of Healing in a general way). Someone else may receive Workings of Powers: what we might call miracles, but is really only God rearranging his creation. Discerning of Spirits is the ability to see what is truly of God in a situation or person; it goes beyond common sense.

All of these are work of the one and same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. There are many more examples on the study guide of different ways that God can use us.

I hope that you are as excited by this as I am. When we doubt our abilities, or feel that we do not have much to offer, how wonderful it is that God gives us the gift of eternal life, the presence of his Spirit, and then gives to us, every single one of us, gifts and abilities with which to bless and help others and serve him.

I wonder what your giftings are? You may be very aware and have thought about this a lot. You might be asking for the very first time. Over the next few weeks and months, let us travel together to discover what God has for us and where he is leading us.