Friday, 28 June 2013

The sermon for Sunday 23 June 2013 - Galatians 3:23-29 – Does this still fit me?

Putting on clothes that we know are too small may seem daft but it’s surprising how often, as Christians, we behave as if we have never grown up!

We come to church on the Sunday, we say our daily prayers but we fail to extend a hand of friendship to a person on the streets or ignore the single mum with children who has just been caught shop-lifting but this time spared jail. We thank Jesus for sacrificing himself for us but fail to pick up our responsibilities and act as a son or daughter of God. We pick out the bits we want to do – the familiar bits not the bits that take us out of our comfort zones.

Paul had the similar problem. His letter is not to any single church in Galatia but to a number of churches in that region. He is concerned that quite a few Christians are still trying to please God by sticking to a set of rules or laws which provide direction and restraint, but did not encourage FAITH. The only mark of ‘faith’ Paul could see was the law being carefully acted out as the law prescribed and in doing so the law kept the people Israel under restraint. The response of the people was by and large adolescent rebellion. Israel did not humble themselves’; the law exposed their sin and held them under restraint until God took away their blindness and gave them a heart to trust him (Jeremiah 24:7). For the law is a teacher, not a saviour; a mirror, not a cleanser.

So Paul attempts to put the record straight. He tells the Galatians that God knows only too well that following a law would prove difficult to do all the time and although God made a covenant, a contract with Abraham it was only intended to be the start of the journey which reached its destination with the arrival of Jesus Christ.

In the time of the Romans a certain slave (known as paidagogos) would have the responsibility for supervising and correcting the children of the family. A paidagogos did not have the power to make the child’s heart good, nor can he give the child his inheritance. When the children grew older, they had learned how to behave and now dealt directly with their father and were responsible to him for their actions.

This is the idea that Paul was trying to get across to the Churches in Galatia. The law could act as a guide but it was only a start, a sort of teacher, which could go just so far in preparing anyone for a relationship with God the Father. The Law is a teacher, not a saviour; a mirror, not a cleanser. Paul emphasised that it was only faith in Jesus Christ which made a person acceptable to God.  To say ‘I have faith in Jesus Christ’ and then continue to live according to the law was the same as a Roman person, having grown up and being told they were now free to develop a relationship with their father, ignoring that freedom and going back to the slave for guidance. The Law is a teacher, not a saviour; a mirror, not a cleanser.

We have a similar choice to make. In the same way that we wouldn’t buy clothes that were intended for someone a lot younger than ourselves, neither should we say we want a relationship with God the Father and then ignore the freedom that we have through Jesus Christ to chat with God. If we try to live our lives by superstition, performing elaborate rituals or attempting to earn God’s favour, aren’t we ignoring what Jesus Christ has done for us?

Just as we no longer make animal sacrifices, as was required under the law, nor are we expected to perform a complex ritual to gain God’s attention. Christ’s sacrifice meant that we can have a relationship with God, anywhere, anytime. Perhaps it is time to experience some of that freedom which faith in Jesus Christ brings?

With this freedom though comes responsibility. It is not a freedom where we can do what we like and ignore the laws and rules which keep us safe from harm etc, it is a freedom that comes from God and is dependent on what we are towards the law-giver – God. If we have a heart to trust God and rely on his mercy, then the law will feel like a much needed dose of medicine from a wise and beloved doctor. ‘This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.’ (1 John 5: 3) For Israel abiding by the laws was a large burdensome job description for earning their favour with God because it did not meet with faith. For us Christians we abide by the law because we love Him.

Those of us that drive will have at some point before taking our test read and memorised as much as possible the Highway Code. We have become familiar with many of the signs although hardly anybody can say they know what every sign means.  If we tried to live by the Highway Code, we would be stopping the car every few miles to refer to the book to find out what the sign meant. Most people who drive, hardly ever refer to the Highway Code (although driving to the Meadows yesterday, perhaps some people need to!); they use their experience to get around safely. Although they know what most of the signs mean, they recognise that they are only a guide. To drive safely takes more than simply knowing what the signs mean.

Having faith in Jesus needs more than a reliance on the Bible. The Bible is an important document which helps us to understand what God did and how other people related to God, but it is a guide. A relationship with God is a living experience, one to be shared daily. A relationship that needs to be worked at and nurtured even on the days when we don’t feel like it.

Having faith in Jesus unites us to himself and all the benefits he can give become ours. God appears to us through Jesus and we are saved. We are saying yes to being his eternal child, to wearing his robes of righteousness, to accepting his love, mercy and forgiveness. As we honour and trust Him, God can not turn himself away or deny us.  We are his and we are no longer under the law.  We have freedom to be His children. There is no distinction between being a male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. God sees all of us as His children. It does not mean that ‘anything goes’ in terms of how we live. It means we do not have to strive to become good enough, we never could and we will certainly never be. But it does mean that we are the Sons and Daughters in God’s mission to respect, love, forgive and serve all people, whoever they are. It does mean allowing him to take us out of our comfort zones to get His work done.

Paul was warning people back then and even today that a false gospel robs you of salvation and of membership in the family of God where all believers are one in Christ. It robs you of your spiritual riches as an heir of the promise. Above all it robs you of an inner peace.  It is a peace we cannot create but we can accept it.

Peace is a gift from God to us. We can accept it by living in a peaceful way. The mind can often be in turmoil like a raging sea and yet God is there and offering us his peace. Peace is not an absence of activity but rather a working in harmony with the world around us. Peace comes through a right relationship between others and us, but, above all, between God and us. Peace is God’s gift and will help us to get back in tune with everything, but if we persist in staying out of tune with others or the world it is hard for God’s peace to get to work in us. For as I have said before; the Law is a tutor, not a saviour; a mirror, not a cleanser. So I am guessing that the question is; are we really rejoicing in the freedom we have in Christ?

1.  In those days it was common to send a child to school in the company of a household servant who was big and strong enough to keep the child safe while walking through town.  The servant was called a custodian (paidagogos in Greek – literally “one who walks with”) The custodian would take the child to school and meet the child after, assuring the child’s safety. This would happen until the child was big enough and strong enough to fend for himself. Paul says this is what the law was like.
a. How does the law keep us safe?
b. How will we know when we are big and strong enough to make it on our own?
c. Using the example of the law as a custodian, if we live by grace and not the law, who watches out for us?  Who is our custodian?
2. In vs 28 Paul makes an astounding statement in his time – that in Christ, there is no longer a difference between Jews and Gentiles, slaves or free, or men or women, but we are all equal in Christ!  Rather, he says, we are all one, united in Christ.
a. In a community that was split over the Gentile/Jew issue, how do you imagine this was received? How do you imagine this would be received today not just in Israel but the world over?
b. Paul wrote these words close to 2000 years ago.  We did not start ordaining women as priest until 1993.  Why do you think it took so long to put these words into practice?
3. What are the implications of us all being equal in Christ?

4. What does being one in Christ imply for your faith and your life?

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Sunday 16 June 2013 Liquid Communion

Luke 7.36 – 8.3
“I tell you her many sins are forgiven, because she has shown great love.”
He said to her: “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

In chapter four Luke has given us a programmatic statement of what he is going to do in presenting Jesus’ Galilean ministry. He is going to establish that Jesus fulfils Biblical prophecy, Isaiah 61.1-2
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
For he has anointed me to proclaim:
the good news to the wretched,
freedom for prisoners,
sight for the blind,
release for the oppressed,
the Year of the Lord’s Favour!”

Luke then presents incident after incident which fulfils this prophecy through the words and actions of Jesus.

In our reading Jesus comes to dine in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Capernaum by invitation. He reclines propped up on cushions and elbows on one of the couches in the triclinium, following the Greco-Roman custom. Sandals have been removed for dining, leaving the feet bare. (See illustration)

First, the Pharisee.  Should we have preconceptions about this Pharisee? Yes. The story is carefully located after earlier stories which provide extended comment on Pharisees. They have attempted to deny Jesus’ authority to forgive, have strongly disapproved his healing on the sabbath (This was “work) and have not submitted (7.30) to the baptism of repentance from John.  “They have rejected”, says Luke, “God’s purpose for them”. This is just a few verses before our reading. So at 7.36 we have every reason to suppose that the Pharisee is set to trap Jesus into some words or actions which will embarrass and discomfort him. Simon’s complete lack of sympathy for Jesus is also betrayed by his rudeness as a host, omitting all the duties of host to guest – no water for Jesus to wash his feet, no kiss of greeting, no perfumed oil for his hair.

Second, the woman.  She knows she needs the salvation offered by Jesus. Inarticulate though she is, weeping constantly, her actions speak through a string of eight verbs in a long sentence after the Hebraic: “behold!”, marking high drama. I translate literally:            
            37: “And behold a woman who was in the town (Capernaum), a sinner, and, having learnt that he was reclining in the house of the Pharisee, having brought a jar of oil of myrrh,
            38: and having stood behind [him] near his feet, weeping, she began to rain upon his feet with tears, and she was wiping [them] off with the hair of her head, and was kissing his feet, and was anointing [them] with the oil of myrrh.” Luke here deliberately recalls the same odd structure at Mk. 5.25 where another unclean woman of great faith was healed by touching Jesus’ clothes, and Jesus declared to that woman (the woman with the issue of blood):
“Daughter, your faith has saved you.
Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction!”

But in our own reading (Lk. 7) we can grasp a little more about the woman. “Sinner” means that she was an adulteress or a prostitute. In floods of tears she comes in repentance to Jesus, seeking forgiveness from the prophet who speaks for God. To kiss his feet expresses deep gratitude. To wash away his tears from his feet with her hair identifies her as a prostitute, for respectable women wore their hair piled high, not hanging down (see the illustration).  Jesus makes the same declaration to her that he made to the paralytic lowered from the roof and to the woman with an issue of blood:
“Your sins are forgiven.”
“Your faith has saved you. Go in peace!”
Here too he fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah (above).

Third, Jesus. Equally astonishing are his perception/ understanding, his authority and his great love and compassion. Jesus does understand that the woman weeps in repentance for her sins, and trusts in him. He reads Simon’s thoughts, his hardheartedness, and points out to him her great love. For the debt of sin cancelled in her case is great – v.47 “I tell you her many sins have been forgiven – and equally great are her repentance, gratitude and love. And this is the main point of the story. This woman has been made whole (the term ‘peace’, Greek for shalom, implies this), while the Pharisee remains unredeemed.

Jesus has overthrown normative values.
He has seen further, judged deeper.
He has shown compassion for the repentant sinner.
We have been presented by Luke with one more scene of Jesus’ charisma,
his authority, his healing power, his kindness.

May we too, then, admit and repent of our sins before God.
Let us forgive (unlike the Pharisee), trust and love (like the prostitute).
For it is Christ who sets the prisoner free and releases the oppressed.


Q 1. What has the artist got wrong in his scene of the ‘Roman’ triclinium?

Q 2. What was the attitude of the Pharisee Simon to Jesus?

Q 3. Who loves most?

Q 4. What do we learn about Jesus from this story?

Friday, 14 June 2013


Readings :   Galatians 1 : 11 – 24         Luke 7 : 11 – 17

This month we are looking at St Paul’s letter to the Galatians and this is the second in the series. It is a very important and, indeed, fascinating letter not least because (as you can see from today’s passage) it gives us unique biographical information about Paul’s Christian life and experience. It is almost certainly the earliest of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, which gives it added freshness and significance, and was written to this new Christian Church only about 15 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus (many years before any of the Gospels were written). We are here in touch, therefore, with the very earliest years of the Christian Church, and its first attempt to spread the Christian Gospel to those beyond the boundaries of Palestine, and specifically to those who were not Jews. That’s very exciting!

Indeed, we are looking here at the point at which Christianity breaks away from its initial roots as a radical renewal movement within Judaism, and becomes a world-wide religion – which, within 300 years, will become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

(Timeline below). We first meet Paul – both in the Acts of the Apostles and in his own story here – as a fervent, indeed fanatical, Pharisee; an expert in the Jewish Law, a dedicated follower of Jewish orthodoxy, and a ferocious opponent of anyone who dared to challenge that orthodoxy. If he came across anyone who was a Christian believer, he was in a position to have them dragged off to prison and was at the very least a witness to the stoning to death of Stephen (Acts 7:54 – 8: 3). He tells us here that his aim was nothing short of the destruction of the young church. Christianity was to him a deeply shocking heresy which must be stamped out.

Then he tells us that, as he travelled to Damascus to further this persecution, the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road and Paul was wonderfully converted. His whole life was turned on its head. He was to become as ardent a missionary for the Christian faith as he had been for its destruction.

But although he was baptized as a Christian by Ananias when he reached Damascus, his understanding of the Christian Gospel could not happen overnight. And he tells us here that he went away by himself to some place in Arabia where, it seems, he spent some three years in a kind of seclusion so that he could think the whole matter through and pray.

Returning to Damascus, he decided to go to Jerusalem where – for whatever reason – he met only Peter and James. He then travelled back to his home town of Tarsus and, so far as he know, he settled back into his life as a tent-maker. And that might well have been the last we hear of him, had it not been for Barnabas. We learn from Acts that the Christian church in Antioch was flourishing, and Barnabas remembered Paul and travelled to Tarsus to seek him out and persuade him to come down and help them out.

If we follow his story on in this letter and Acts, we learn that, in due course, he was appointed an apostle to the Gentiles along with Barnabas, and in Acts 13 we read how they were commissioned, and sent off on their first missionary journey which took them to Galatia.

A quick reading of Acts might lead you to think that Paul set out on his missionary journeys almost immediately after his conversion. But there was an interval of some 15 years at least while he worked out the theology which appears in the letters and makes the decisive break with Judaism.

You will see from verse 15 that Paul believed that God had called him from birth not only to be a Christian, but to preach the Christian Gospel to non-Jews. This he does with considerable success, and you may well feel that the fact that Christianity broke away from the Jewish faith and became a world religion, and so came to you and me, was principally due – under God – to Paul. We are not asked to keep the Jewish Law in order to be Christians. we are asked to put our whole trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, and become his lifelong followers -  and that is all.

That is the Gospel message of faith and freedom which Paul proclaimed to these Galatians, and through which they found salvation. That was all they needed – personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and the commitment of their lives to him. That is the authentic Gospel – the good news – which Paul proclaimed till his dying day and which the true church has proclaimed ever since.

But, as we heard last week, something went drastically wrong. No sooner had he left a young, healthy, growing church in Galatia, than others moved in and insisted that Paul’s version of the Gospel was incomplete. These people were to dog Paul’s footsteps all his life and he calls them ‘the Judaisers’.  He has a few other choice words to describe them too. In his letter to the Philippians (3:3) he calls them ‘dogs’ and ‘men who do evil’.

They insisted that, in addition to putting their faith in Jesus Christ, these new Christians also had to obey the basics of the Jewish Law, with all its rules and regulations. This is what he calls (in chap 1: 6) the ‘different gospel – which is ‘really no gospel at all’. Had they succeeded, it would have put Christianity firmly back within the framework of the Jewish faith, and it could never have become a faith for all people, everywhere. But it looks as if many of the new Galatian Christians were persuaded by these men, and one of the main purposes of this fiery letter is to put them back on the right track. All that is required to be a Christian with an eternal salvation is faith in Jesus Christ.

In order to defend his position and authority, he tells them that the Gospel he proclaims was revealed to him directly by the risen Jesus and is therefore authentic, and was not derived second-hand from Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. That is the essential core of this first chapter of this passionate letter.
- - - - - - - - - -

Well, this is all very interesting historically, but does it have an application today? I believe it does, because we actually have a close parallel in the church today.

The true Gospel is that we become Christians through faith in Jesus Christ for this life and the life to come – personal trust and commitment to be his followers.

The ‘different gospel’ is that a Christian is someone with faith in Jesus Christ certainly, but we will be judged by God by worldly standards of a ‘good life’. Have we lived a life of honesty, faithfulness, goodness, love and the rest? There is a test to be passed, and either we achieve a pass or a fail. Dig beneath most people’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and you will discover that they think a Christian is a person who lives a good life, obeys the ‘golden rule’ and generally does their best.

Now the word ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news’. But that definition is actually a recipe for despair, not rejoicing. If that is the test, we all fail – and in our heart of hearts, we know it. We do not really succeed in living up to our own standards, let alone God’s.

The Church is an assembly of ‘sinners’ – people who know they have not lived up to God’s standards, and are here because we have heard and believed the good news that Jesus died for our sins, and rose again that all who believe in him might be forgiven by God and accepted into his family.

Of course we will try to live good lives, and God sends us his Holy Spirit to help and strengthen us. But that is the fruit of our salvation, not the means by which we obtain it. Forgiven sinners are free to make a new start with all the burdens of failure lifted off our back.

No-one knew that better than Paul, who had viciously tried to destroy the church and inflicted much cruelty in the belief that he was pleasing God by living a good life. What he discovered on the Damascus Road was that Christ embraced him, forgave him, and commissioned him for an entirely new life. That was the good news he was so determined to pass on to everyone. It remains the true Gospel for today.

Never settle for the ‘different gospel’ of good deeds bringing you salvation. Join the glorious ranks of Christians who rejoice, and dance in the freedom of knowing that their sins are forgiven through Christ, and that there is no price to pay for salvation. Rejoice in the totally free, utterly generous, limitless grace of God. You can’t achieve your own salvation by good deeds no matter how hard you try. You can be saved only through Jesus who died for your sins, and rose from the dead to bring you to eternal life.

When you come to Communion, know that you are taking to yourself the forgiveness, the new life, the new power that is offered to you freely. All you have to do is to accept it gratefully. That is the true Gospel, not the different one. It is good news indeed.


Paul the stalwart Jewish Pharisee                                          Gal. 1: 13,14

persecutes the infant Church & tries to destroy it                Acts 9: 1,2
                                                                                                              Phil 3: 4 - 6

Paul converted on the Damascus Road                                 Gal 1: 15,16
by direct revelation from the risen Jesus                              Acts 9: 3 – 19a

Paul testifies briefly in Damascus & departs                        Gal 1: 17
for Arabia                                                                                    Acts 9: 19b – 25

Paul in Arabia for 3 years                                                   Gal 1: 17b & 18
                                                                                   Between Acts 9: 25 and 9: 26?

Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem                                                  Gal 1: 18 – 24

Paul in Tarsus for perhaps 10/11 years.                                  Gal 2: 1 – 10
Barnabas seeks him out 14 years (presumably)                     Acts 9: 26 - 30
after his conversion & brings him to Jerusalem
(second visit)

Paul helps Barnabas lead the growing young Church          Acts 11: 19 - 26
In Antioch.                                                                                                                           

Peter visits Antioch and Paul confronts him                           Gal 2: 11 – 16

Paul & Barnabas sent out on 1st Missionary Journey             Acts 13: 1 – 3

Paul & Barnabas in Galatia – presumably some 15 years     Acts 13: 13 – 51
after his conversion

Robert. June 2013.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Sunday 2 June 2013, Trinity 1, 1 Kings 8, Galatians 1:1-12, Bruce

Welcome to the first in a short series looking at Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Although it is the 9th book in the New Testament, it is thought by some to be one of the earliest documents of the early church, and it gives an insight into what was going on.
When I was first ordained my mother gave me some advice.  She said that I should be careful to smile at everyone I met; if they saw me in a clerical collar, they would expect me to smile.  I have found this to be generally true, although if I am not in a clerical collar people can think I am a bit strange.
It is interesting how we can be influenced by what we imagine others think of us.  We learn important lessons about how to live well from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia.  His hearers were originally from Gaul, fierce warriors who had ended up in the centre and north of what is now Turkey.  (Other people living in the area were the Nicolatians – people of battle Rev. 2:6).
They were fighters.  Paul is not afraid to confront them and to be quite aggressive.  The issue we will see in the next few weeks is what is the gospel, and how should we live?  The way that Paul tackles this is to look at who we are and what motivates us as followers of Jesus Christ.
There are four books in the New Testament called gospels, but in reality there is only one gospel.  Tom Wright gives an imaginary example of someone in apartheid South Africa who plans a building with only one door, to be used by all races.  He goes away on a journey and discovers from a letter that in his absence the plans have been changed and someone else has added a door, to force a division between the races.  The good news, the gospel, that we are all one in Jesus Christ, is being subverted.  The presenting issue was whether Gentiles had in effect to become Jews before they could be followers of Jesus.  We will find out more about that in the coming weeks.
This week we see what drives Paul.  It is his sense of call to follow Jesus Christ, his personal understanding that Jesus had given him a special role.  People seem to have visited the churches that Paul had founded, spreading a subtlety different version of the Christian gospel, and suggesting that Paul had not been sent by God; that he was not a true apostle.
His response is to hark back to his conversion.  He had been met by Jesus, who had called him and commissioned him.  It was a very personal experience that shaped his whole life.  He knew himself to have been rescued from the present evil age by Jesus who gave himself for us.
I wonder what there is that mirrors this in our own lives.  You might think that it is ordination to clerical ministry.  I would argue rather that it is our own conversion as celebrated in our baptism.  We each are called to follow Jesus and serve him.  I am not suggesting that you must see a bright light and hear an audible voice; I am saying that we each need that personal encounter with God in Jesus.  If you can testify to that in your life, you have much to give thanks and praise for.  If you are still searching, I would love to have a conversation with you; it is all about grace and peace from God our Father to you.
Based on this conviction that God had done a great thing in him, Paul is able to stand and fight.  He seems to have been accused of trimming his message to suit his hearers, much as we might expect from a politician today.  Instead he claims the right to chastise his hearers; if the Galatians want a fight, he is up for it.  Even if he wanted to, he is not at liberty to change or water down the message -  he has received it from God.
We seek to live this out in our Purpose and Values statement:
To Encounter God and Grow in Him:
· Christ at the Centre   (Galatians 2:20)
· Every Member a Disciple   (Galatians 5:16)
· Every Member in Ministry    (Galatians 5:13)
· Every Member Building Community   (Galatians 3:28)
· Every Member Involved in Evangelism   (Galatians 6:14)

God give us grace and peace to live in him, and to know the presence of his son living in us.  May we discover a depth of his love that overflows to others, regardless of our circumstances.  May we claim our birth right as children of the living God, united in him.
Discussion starters
1.       Paul seems to have been a little cross(!).  How important is the faith to you, and how do you respond when it seems that people are trying to water it down?
2.       My mother was very concerned that I should be “respectable” in my faith.  To what extent do you think that you are influenced by others in your believing, rather than paying attention to what God wants?

3.       Spend some time giving thanks to God for his grace and peace, and also praying for each other to have a fresh encounter with him and continued growth.