Thursday, February 01, 2024

Come and See

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Come and See

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

John 1:43-51

Our readings in church on a Sunday follow a lectionary. As you will know, a lectionary is basically a list of all the Bible readings for our services throughout the year. The lectionary we follow at Christ Church is a three-year cycle with different readings for each year of the cycle. After three years, the cycle repeats. In each one of the three years, we read one of the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This year is the second year in the cycle, known as Year B, and we are reading through St Mark's Gospel.

Why, then, I hear you ask, is our Gospel reading today from St John’s Gospel and not from St Mark’s? This is because on certain Sundays in the year, the readings from one of the first three Gospels are supplemented by a reading from St John's Gospel, the fourth Gospel. Next Sunday, we will have another reading from St John's Gospel. It is one of my favourite readings, as it happens!

The first three Gospels have a lot in common. They look at the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. Any reader of the Gospels, however, can see almost immediately that St John's Gospel is different to the first three. I would love to take more time to explain the differences, but for now please just take my word for it!

St John himself seems to have been aware of the other Gospels and the stories in them, and what he is doing with his Gospel is similar to what we are doing through the lectionary. That is, St John is supplementing, expanding, and clarifying what people will have known from the first three Gospels. So, for example, St John doesn't describe the actual baptism of Jesus; he doesn't have to as many of his readers would already have known what happened when Jesus was baptized. Instead, St John explains how John the Baptist understood the baptism of Jesus.

One of the biggest differences, however, between the first three Gospels and St. John's Gospel is that in the first three Gospels most of the action before the last week of Jesus' life takes place in Galilee. In St. John's Gospel, however, while some of the action takes place in Galilee, a lot of it takes place south, in Judea and around Jerusalem.

So, in the first three gospels, the call of the first disciples takes place by the Sea of Galilee. And it comes out of the blue. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee. He sees some fishermen mending their nets. He calls them, and they immediately leave their nets. They get up and follow him. At first sight that’s a bit strange, why would anyone just pack everything in simply because some itinerant preacher called them to leave everything and follow him? What St John tells us, though, makes sense of that call. St John tells us that the first disciples were previously disciples of John the Baptist. And it is John the Baptist himself who draws the attention of his own disciples to Jesus. The first words spoken in St John's Gospel about Jesus are spoken by John the Baptist who says, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The ‘next day’, John the Baptist repeats the words, St John tells us, for emphasis (John 1:36).

When two of John the Baptist's disciples hear them, they immediately follow Jesus. They had joined John the Baptist because they were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, the one who would lead them to freedom, the one whom Moses and the prophets had spoken about.

St John continues to describe how those who were John the Baptist’s disciples become disciples of Jesus instead (John 1:35-42). One of the two disciples who hear John the Baptist point Jesus out is Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. The other disciple is unnamed. The first thing Jesus himself says in St John's Gospel is a question to these two disciples. Jesus asks them what they are you looking for. They reply by asking Jesus where he is staying. Jesus replies, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). They go to stay with Jesus that day. The first thing Andrew does is to find his brother, Simon, to tell him that they have found the one they were looking for.

In our reading from St John's Gospel today, Jesus decides to go to Galilee. We will see why next week. But before he goes, Jesus finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. The first thing Philip does is to find another friend, Nathanael. He tells him that they have found him who Moses and the prophets wrote about. Philip’s friend, Nathanael, is at first sceptical. Jesus doesn’t come from the right background. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he asks, but he is quickly convinced for himself when he meets Jesus. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he has seen Nathaniel under the fig tree before Philip called him. Nathaniel realizes that Jesus is the one they have been hoping for and confesses Jesus as the one he’s been looking for: the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see greater things than these.

And so, some former disciples of John the Baptist become the first disciples of Jesus, convinced that he is the One they have been expecting, and their journey with Jesus begins, a journey that will take them to the Cross. We will be following them on that journey.

All of which is very interesting as an account of the calling of the first disciples, but St John is writing his gospel for a purpose. And that purpose is not just to give us some interesting historical information. St John tells us, at the end of his gospel, that his purpose is that we, the reader, may believe for ourselves that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name (John 20:31).

At the beginning of St John's Gospel, we see the first disciples come to believe Jesus is the Messiah and as we follow them on their journey through St John's Gospel, we see how they discover that he, Jesus, has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). St John, by the way he tells the story of the call of the first disciples, is inviting us to find eternal life in the way they did. What Jesus says to them, he is saying to us. What he asks of them, he asks of us. What he promises them, he promises those who believe in him: we too will have life in his name if we have faith in him. Life in the sense of eternal life, that is. As we read through St John’s Gospel in the weeks ahead, we will see that eternal life is a major theme of the Gospel. As St John writes in John 3:16, the verse we read at every service:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

So today, Jesus asks us the same question he asked the first disciples, ‘What are you looking for?’ They were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the one whom Moses and the prophets had written about. It’s unlikely that we’re looking for that. But we are looking for life. We are here on this planet for a very short period of time. Many of us don’t give it much thought. We just get on with life as best we can. But others of us, however, sense that there must be more to life than simply the 70, 80, or 90 years or so that we’re allotted.

Yes, there are many things that we experience during these years, things that we enjoy and get satisfaction from - family, career, money, possessions - but we can’t help feeling that there must be something else. Surely there’s more to life than this.

Well, the first thing I want to say about this today is that while we may be looking for something, Jesus was looking for us first. ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree’, says Jesus to Nathanel. Nathaniel is overwhelmed by Jesus’ knowledge of him. It can be frightening to be truly known and to be truly seen. We are contradictory creatures. On the one hand, we want someone to notice us and to like us, and not just on Facebook and social media! We want someone to understand us and to appreciate us. And yet on the other hand, we spend time hiding, trying to keep ourselves private and hidden, pretending to be someone or something we’re not. But Jesus is the One who sees us and sees everything there is to see about us. And the incredible thing is that seeing us, he still loves us and calls us. Nathaniel responds to Philip’s words about Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Many today respond similarly. Can anything good come out of the church?

Can anything good come out of this group of people who worship an itinerant preacher who lived 2,000 years ago? What can Jesus contribute to my life and my existence now? So secondly, what I would say this morning is what Jesus said to Andrew and the unnamed disciple, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). Come and see! Philip says the same to Nathanael when Nathanael questions whether Jesus can be the One they were looking for, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:46).

Jesus sees us, knows everything about us, and he now invites us to come and see him. See who he is and see what he has to offer us. Many reject Christ without knowing the first thing about him. Today he asks us, asks anyone who is looking for something more in life, to come and see.

But thirdly and finally, what will we see if we do come and see?

We will see what Jesus told Nathanael he would see. We will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, that is, on him. You will all know the song:

‘Imagine there's no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us,
above us only sky.’

It's easy if you try. It turned out to be all too easy and so today people don’t have to imagine there’s no heaven. We simply assume there isn’t one. Heaven is to most people itself just a religious figment of the imagination. All we have now is the sky, that is, what we can see in the physical world around us. No hell below us, nothing else but this world. We have a very limited worldview. Jesus offers to open our eyes, to make it possible for us to see heaven opened, and to come into the presence of God himself. To enable us to see he is the One through whom we can enter heaven and come into God's presence because he is the One on whom the angels of God are ascending and descending. He is the very centre of heaven, and he is the One we are invited to come and see.

Those who imagine there is no heaven are the ones without imagination. They are the ones whose imagination has become limited and who in the process have become blind to the reality of the world we live in. How ironic that we can see billions of light years into the universe. We can see physical realities we never dreamt of in the past, but we cannot see a thing spiritually. We are blind! Jesus today says to us, Come and see!’ Come and see heaven opened. And in seeing heaven opened, we will see him who offers us life, who offers us what we’re looking for.


Tuesday, January 09, 2024

To Have An Epiphany

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Epiphany Sunday

Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany was actually yesterday, but it has become the custom in the church worldwide to celebrate it on the Sunday nearest to it. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. The decorations are all down, or at least they should be! At Epiphany, we think of the visit of the Wise Men, though their visit would, of course, have been later than 12 days after the birth of Jesus. (You can listen to my Christmas podcast if you want to know more!)

The coming of the Wise Men symbolizes the coming of Gentiles to faith in Christ. St Paul writes about this in the second reading this morning. We all know the story of the Wise Men. We are, however, less familiar with its meaning. We take it for granted nowadays that the Gospel is for everyone; not just for the Jewish people, but for all people.

St Paul in our reading, however, describes the inclusion of the Gentiles as a ‘mystery’. Now St Paul uses the word ‘mystery’, not in the sense of an Agatha Christie novel, a mystery that can be solved by a clever detective and human ingenuity, but a mystery in the sense of something that is hidden, which can’t be understood, but which has to be revealed, revealed that is by God himself. It needs an ‘epiphany’, something which opens our eyes so that we can see.

St Paul writes that the mystery has been made known to him by revelation, as, he writes, it also was to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery, St Paul explains, was not made known to former generation. So, what is the big deal?

Well, in the Old Testament, it is God’s chosen people, the Jews, to whom all God’s promises are made. There is talk in the prophets of Gentiles believing and worshipping the true God, but they do so as Gentiles, as outsiders. God’s chosen people remain the Jews.

The mystery made known by revelation, however, is that the Gentiles can become ‘fellow heirs’, ‘members of the same body’, ‘sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus’. That is, they can become in every way equals to the Jewish people in their relationship with God. How do they become equals? In the same way the Jews themselves now come to God: through the Gospel. Of this Gospel, St Paul writes, he has become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This gift was given to him, St Paul writes, to bring to the Gentiles ‘the news of the boundless riches of Christ’. This single idea is the key to understanding St Paul’s life, mission, and teaching. Indeed, it’s the key to understanding the history and development of the early church. (For anyone who will be taking my course at Ming Hua this coming semester, we’ll be talking a lot about this!)

St Paul was charged with the task and responsibility of telling the Gentiles what God had planned for them. St Paul was entrusted with this role by God. He describes it as being ‘commissioned by God’. God’s grace, he says, was given to him for the Gentiles.

Well, as we read this passage from the third chapter of Ephesians, we should notice St Paul’s emphasis on ‘grace’. He was given a commission of grace. He became a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This grace was given to him. It is by grace that St Paul preaches a gospel of grace. So the obvious question is, what is grace? Well, grace quite simply is a gift, a gift given to us freely; it is something that we neither merit or earn.

St Paul and all the New Testament writers assume that we do not deserve anything from God except judgment. The Gospel, the good news concerning Jesus, is that we can be saved from the judgment we deserve by God’s grace, for no other reason than God grants it out of love through faith in Jesus. There could be no better message at the start of a new year than this. God offers us here today the chance to become heirs with all God’s people, to become members of Christ’s body, and sharers in all that God has promised. St Paul says he was given the role of taking the news of the ‘boundless riches’ of Christ to the Gentiles. And this is the news we are being given today at the start of a new year. The boundless riches of Christ!

Imagine for a moment being told that you had just inherited a fortune. How would you feel? How would any of us feel? We’d feel elated and excited, and yet this is precisely what St Paul writes has happened to us. We sort of take it for granted if we take it at all. And this is the problem. We do not take it! Firstly, because we do not believe it or are not interested in it, or, secondly, because we don’t think we have to do anything: we assume it’s ours anyway. What’s all the fuss about?

For very good motives, the Church in recent years has focused on the unconditional love and acceptance of God. We have taken seriously the message that God’s love is for everyone and not just the chosen few. We’ve preached that whatever people have done, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, God loves them. God’s love isn’t exclusive, it’s inclusive. It’s universal.

This idea of the unconditional, universal love and acceptance of God is now central to the Church’s message and mission. So central, in fact, that you will find it stated on every church website. If you don’t believe me, randomly pick a church in any country in the world, go onto its website, and you will find this stated in one way or another. And it is because we have been at pains to tell people that they don’t have to do anything to be loved by God that we have stressed that we don’t have to do anything ourselves to earn or receive God’s grace. And it’s here we have made a fatal mistake.

For while there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love, we do have to receive it. Notice the phrase in verse 12: it’s through faith in him. You may remember the story of when St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy go to Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). St Paul and Silvanus are imprisoned in the jail in Philippi. At midnight there’s an earthquake. St Paul and Silvanus have the opportunity to go free, but they remain put. The Philippian jailer says to them, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30).’ St Paul and Silvanus don’t reply by saying, ‘Nothing, you’re saved already.’ They say, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. (Acts 16:31).’ Believe in the Lord Jesus! In other words, have faith in Christ.

Tragically, we are being encouraged to perpetuate the lie that we are all saved regardless of whether we have faith or not. Now I used to be of the opinion that it didn’t really matter if people believed this, as long they had faith. It also didn’t matter what they believed happened to other people as long as they had faith themselves. I’m now of the opinion that this idea that we’re loved by God regardless of whether we have faith or not, that we don’t have to do anything, is at the heart of many of the problems facing us as a Church. There is an extreme version of grace in the Church that insists that if we require faith of people, we make faith itself into a work, something that we can be praised for. God’s grace really is a gift, but a gift doesn’t stop being a gift once we open it. And grace doesn’t stop being a gift once we receive it by faith.

Many cannot be bothered with God’s grace. Faith is out of fashion. It can be depressing, can’t it? Not only are people not interested in faith, but increasingly are deliberately abandoning faith altogether. That’s the number one story in churches in the West at present.

St Paul writes that he has been given God’s grace to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. The task that was given to St Paul of taking the news of the boundless riches of Christ to people has now been given to us. And it is what God is calling us to do as a church as we enter a new year. It is what we pledged ourselves to do on Pledge Sunday back on the Second Sunday of Advent. But St Paul also adds another phrase that it is very easy to miss.

St Paul writes in verse 10 that it is God’s plan that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. Let me ask a question. What do America, Russia, Taiwan, India, the UK, and the Solomon Isles have in common as we enter 2024? Does anyone know? The answer is that they’re all having elections this year. In fact, 49% of the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s a staggering statistic. But all this talk about electing rulers gives us the impression, that it is the rulers and authorities of this world who count and that it is the rulers and authorities of this world that we have to fear.

Those in power, those who rule and have authority, certainly think they are the ones who matter, which is why, like President Putin today and King Herod before him, they are so anxious to hang on to power. It’s interesting how many scientists, philosophers, and politicians all share the same basic world view, one we are all encouraged to share, that this world is all there is. So that what happens in this world is what matters, and we, of course, matter most. But St Paul would tell us that this world is not all there is, and we are certainly not the centre of it. Rather there is a spiritual dimension that we ignore at our peril. St Paul writes that the wisdom of God in its rich variety should be made known to the rulers and authorities not in this world but in the heavenly places.

We like to think we are so wise, so clever, but while we continue in unbelief, while we persist in this belief that this world is all there is, we simply demonstrate our ignorance and foolishness. We need to see that God is the creator of all things and that God is the centre of all things, and that it is only when we come to know him that we find our own place in life and in this world. In other words, before we finally leave Christmas behind we each of us need an epiphany. Like the wise men, we need to see the child with Mary, his mother, and kneel down and pay him homage (Matthew 2:11). We need to kneel down in worship.

For it is only when we kneel down in worship before the child and his mother that we will be ready to get up and get on with what 2024 has to offer. St Paul writes that it is in him, in this child, whose birth we have been celebrating this Christmas season, that we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him, through faith in Christ.

And so, at this, the start of a new year, may God grant us an epiphany. May God grant us to see the child with Mary his mother and through faith come to him.


Extraordinarily Ordinary

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Christmas season.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Reading: Matthew 2:13-18

Part of the problem with the way we celebrate Christmas in church is the way we collapse all the events into one another, so that it appears that all the significant events associated with Jesus’ birth happened at the same time. Or at least within a few hours of one another.

Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding a place to stay, (or as the nativity plays wrongly would have it, not finding a place to stay); the birth and the baby in the manger; the shepherds and the Wise Men; they are all presented as happening very close to one another. As, however, our reading reminds us, we are talking weeks and months, not hours and days, for all the events to have taken place.

According to our reading, King Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, according to the time when the Wise Men told him the baby was born. They visit Jesus in the house where he was staying. Not only would Jesus not be lying on a bed of straw when the Wise Men arrived, he would be up and walking around!

A more likely chronology is that some time before Mary’s baby was due, Mary and Joseph travelled down to stay with relatives in the place where Joseph came from. After Mary gave birth in the privacy of that part of the house where the animals were routinely brought in at night for safe-keeping, shepherds came to offer their congratulations to the family on their new arrival. Eight days later, the baby was circumcised, as all baby boys were. Then a month or so later, Mary and Joseph took the baby to be presented in the Temple. At some point over a year later, the Wise Men came and sought out where the family was living.

Does any of this matter? Yes, because our usual way of presenting the story of Jesus’ birth, apart from being wrong factually, romanticises it and shuts it off from reality in a magical fairy-tale world of its own. But again, as our reading reminds us, there was nothing shut off from reality about our Lord’s early years.

Sometimes, in an effort to make Jesus’ birth seem more interesting, preachers will present the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as that of a poor, homeless family forced to take refuge in a stable because no-one would give them a room anywhere else. But this emphasis on Jesus’ poverty belongs less to history and more to our imagination.

Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. Of course, he would have had somewhere for him and his young pregnant wife to stay. And, of course, there would have been older women to help with the birth. Jesus’ birth, in other words, was unexceptional with nothing to distinguish it as such from the birth of the other boys who were born at the same time, but who were later to lose their lives because of it.

The shepherds turning up on the night may at first seem to have been a bit unusual, but given how intrinsic animals were to daily life and how important sheep were to Bethlehem, having a few shepherds around is hardly all that surprising.

Jesus’ birth was entirely normal and that’s the point. Jesus was truly one of us. To the outside world, Jesus’ arrival in the world was nothing special; it was ordinary even. His family were not rich, nor were they poor; he was not born in a palace, but he was not homeless either. He was one of us.

And as one of us, he was not immune to the events of our world and the harshness of it. King Herod was a cruel leader just like many leaders in our world today who are responsible for atrocities on an even greater scale than the murder of a few children in a relatively obscure village in the Roman Empire.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us. But not he did not do so in a way that distinguished him from us as he lived among us. He was in every way one of us; he was ordinary like most of us.

It is Jesus’ ordinariness that is so amazing.

We too are subject to forces over which we have no control and are made to do things we don’t want to do and to go to places we don’t want to go in order to satisfy the greed and egos of the rich and powerful. We too are victims of their schemes and ambitions. Jesus could have been born extremely rich or extremely poor; he could have been born in a palace, as the Wise Men expected him to have been or in a stable as we would prefer him to have been. But instead, he was born in normal circumstances to ordinary people who by trusting in God were to do something extraordinary.

Jesus’ birth is good news for ordinary people, average people, unremarkable people, people like you and me; people who in our own very ordinariness can experience the extraordinary grace of God.

Friday, November 17, 2023

The Shadow of Death

This is an edited and expanded version of the sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

The Shadow of Death

The Third Sunday of Advent

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Yesterday was St Martin's Day. In the past in some parts of the Church, this marked the beginning of an extended season of Advent. Although we do not follow that practice nowadays, our readings and our service nevertheless take on an Advent theme. In our reading this morning, St Paul tells the Thessalonians that he does not want them to be uninformed about those who have died. This, he writes, is so that they will not grieve as others do who have no hope.

St Paul raises two issues here. Firstly, what has happened to those who have died? And, secondly, just how are we as believers to grieve?

In response to the first issue of what has happened to those who have died, the standard Christian response is that those who have died have gone to heaven to be with God. In heaven, we believe, they enjoy a blissful existence, hence the phrase, ‘they have gone to a better place’.

So secondly, when it comes to the question of how we should grieve as believers, while understandably we miss those who have died and passed away and feel their loss, we can be happy for them - or so the argument goes. This even leads to Christians saying that funerals can be a time of rejoicing.

If all this is what St Paul believed, it is not what he says, not here at least, and certainly not as most Christians mean it. We need to backtrack a bit and ask why St Paul writes what he does. A clue to the explanation lies, in fact, in our Gospel reading (Matthew 25:1-13). Jesus tells his disciples the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids to teach them that they should always be ready for his return. He warns the disciples that he will return at any time and at a time when they least expect it

So, after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, the first believers took Jesus at his word and expected his return at any time. It was imminent in their minds. Jesus was coming soon, and when he came, he would bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, as we pray for every week in the Lord's Prayer.

When Jesus came back, they believed, he would judge the living and the dead; he would give eternal life to those who had trusted in him, and he would punish those who had not. This hope of Jesus’ return was a central part of their message. It was not something peripheral to it but belonged to the very core of the Gospel they preached. It followed that if Jesus was coming soon, the majority of believers would still be alive when he did. Their focus, then, was not on those who had died and passed away, but on those who were still alive and being prepared for when their Lord came back. Those who were still alive had to be ready for his return.

As time went on, however, Christ’s return seemed to have been delayed and the issue of what would happen to those who had died became much more pressing. Would those who had died before Christ’s return miss out?

St Paul is anxious to reassure the Thessalonian who were worried that this would be the case, and the answer he gives is perhaps not quite what we would expect. St Paul does not say that those who have died have gone to be with Jesus in heaven; he says that when he returns those who have died will rise to meet Christ first, and it only after he has gathered up those believers who have died that he will then gather those who are alive to himself. We do not grieve for those who have died as others do who have no hope, St Paul writes, because Christ, when he comes, will come for them too. The hope that St Paul talks about remained firmly the hope of Christ's return: Christ’s return to us and for us.

The hope was not that we would go to be with Christ in heaven but that Christ would come to us on earth. It was possible to hold onto this hope while believers thought that Christ could return at any time. As time passed, however, and Christ did not return, believers had to face the reality that Jesus was not going to be coming back any time soon.

So, there developed in the Church what we can describe as a two-sided hope. Firstly, the fundamental hope remained that Christ would one day return, and believers’ hopes remained focused on this expectation. It was then, and only then, that our salvation would be complete. Believers in Christ would be rewarded with the gift of eternal life; sinners would be punished; and the kingdom of God instated here on earth.

Secondly, in the meantime, however, those who died before Christ’s return would go to be with Jesus in heaven to wait for the Day of Judgment and Christ's return. This received some refinement over the years, but you get the general idea! Heaven was not the destination; heaven was the waiting room. It is here that believers waited with Christ for the Day when God would raise them, and Christ would take them with him when returned to earth in glory.

This hope of the return of Christ was not just about the future; it affected how believers saw their life in this world in the present. This life, they believed, was a preparation for the life to come. They saw this life as transient, temporary, and testing. This life, in other words, was about God getting us ready to live, as we saw last week, in the City of God.

In the old funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer, there are these words:

‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?’

Full of misery! Believers in the past were far more realistic in their assessment of life in this world. Their hope, as a result, was very much for a better life in the future when Christ’s Kingdom came and Christ returned. This life here and now was a preparation for it, but the life of the world to come would only be fully ours when Christ returned.

This, however, has all changed in today’s Church and for most believers. It is, though, only comparatively recently that it has changed. The reason it has changed is because we have largely given up on the idea of Christ's return. This is why we never talk about it. On those occasions when we cannot avoid talking about it, such as at Advent, we talk about it without any expectation that it will actually happen. What is more, we have also largely rejected the idea of any future judgment. God is just too loving and too nice. Our belief now is that we are all, each and everyone of us, going to a better place, regardless of what we do or fail to do here.

So, what about here? Well, we find all this talk of life being short and full of misery and of being cut down like a flower far too depressing for words, and far too depressing for us modern day Christians to believe. Rather than worrying about the future and what will happen to us when we die, our focus is on getting the most out of life now. In any case, we do not think we have to worry about the future, for the simple reason that there is nothing to worry about. God is going to look after us anyway. Instead of worrying about the future, we want to make the most of this life for ourselves and for our family, and, if we have any time left over, to use that time in making this world a better place for our children to grow up in.

Our goal now as believers is to enjoy this life and all that we have, following our hopes and ambitions in this world, doing what good we can as we do. The problem for Christians, of course, is that this does not sound very different to what everyone else is doing. Where does God fit into all this?

I think God fits into modern-day Christians’ hopes and dreams in three ways. Firstly, as a way to justify our goals and give them divine authority. Secondly, in helping us to achieve those goals. And thirdly, by being there for us when we do not achieve them or find it hard to do so.

As believers in the 21st century, we need to see that all this leaves us with a very different faith and hope to that of the Thessalonians and to that of previous generations of believers.

Now I am not asking you this morning to choose between these two different ways of seeing things, just to see the difference. To see the difference between the sort of faith expressed, for example, in the Old Book of Common Prayer and the faith of most modern-day believers.

Rather than having a hope centred on Christ and what God is going to do in the future when Christ returns, our focus has become on ourselves in the present and what God can do for us now. We often use the same words and phrases as they used in the past, but we have given them a very different context and certainly a very different meaning. If we can see this, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Over Advent and the time leading up to it, I hope to examine more fully the direction I believe we should be going in. But in closing this morning, let me just ask briefly, what practical difference does this make? What I have been saying can seem very theoretical and perhaps even irrelevant. What difference, if any, would it make if we regained the perspective of the past?

The first difference it would make to us is that we would stop deceiving ourselves! We who live in the 21st century have a narrative of progress. Things are better now, we think, than they were in the past, and what is more, they are only going to go getting better. We are so much wiser, cleverer, and richer than previous generations. They lived in ignorance, superstition, and fear. We know better! But is that really true? Well, it is certainly true that some things are better materially now than they were.

I, for one, prefer living in a world with anesthetic, antibiotics, and vaccines, for example. But let me ask this question. If things are so much better nowadays, why doesn't it feel like it?

Only this week, here in Christ Church, I was recorded as part of a video for secondary school students to attempt to give them some hope when they are feeling suicidal. Because, as you will have read, suicides among secondary school students have risen, and risen dramatically. What is all the talk amongst young people today? It is of mental health issues. Huge numbers of young girls, for example, are engaging in self-harm and in self-destructive behaviour. Our material achievements have resulted in our spiritual poverty. And so, blinded by our material wealth, we continue to gamble on everything being okay in the end as we concentrate on trying to enjoy our life in this world now, and not doing a very good job of it.

How can we talk of a narrative of progress when there are two major wars taking place in our world, sucking in the nations of the world? Who would have thought that after two world wars we would see war in Europe and war in the Middle East? And these are just the wars we are talking about. Any thought that we give now for the well-being of others is for well-being in the present, and we are not even achieving that.

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope’, St Paul writes.

We believers do grieve, we grieve as people who know that death is terrible. Death is an enemy still waiting to be destroyed. In this life, in the present, we, like all people, are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Death isn't just something that happens at the end of life; it is a powerful enemy that casts its shadow over the whole of life and the whole of human endeavor. But while a powerful enemy that is to be taken with the utmost seriousness, we as believers face that enemy with hope.

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not walk through it alone. We walk through it with the Lamb who is our shepherd, who will lead us to the springs of the waters of the river of life (Revelation 7:17). We walk through the valley of the shadow of death with the One who has conquered death and who will one day seal that victory with his return.

And so today, as we remember those whose lives were cruelly cut short in war, and as we think of the power of death, we think too of the power of Christ, and we rejoice in him and look for his coming again. We rejoice in his triumph and his victory over sin and death, a victory in which one day we will share.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!


Monday, November 06, 2023

The City of God

This is an edited and expanded version of the sermon for All Saints’ Sunday. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

The City of God

All Saints Sunday

Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

In our first reading this morning from the book of Revelation, St John describes his vision of heaven. He sees a great multitude standing before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice:

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:10)

St John is told that those who are standing before the throne will hunger and thirst no more. The Lamb will be their shepherd and will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

It is a wonderful vision. It expresses the hope that whatever suffering we may experience here and now in this world, it will one day come to an end. I think that in the minds of most believers that day will be when we die and go to be with God in heaven. We need, however, to read to the end of the book of Revelation. For St John’s vision ends not in heaven, but with a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-2). At the end of the book of Revelation, St John sees the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 22:1-2).

I mentioned earlier the stained-glass window at the back of the church, the West window. The imagery is from St John's vision of the New Jerusalem. The window depicts the Lamb and the river of life with the tree of life on either side of it with twelve different kinds of fruits and with its leaves for the healing of the nations. The window seeks to express our ultimate hope as believers of receiving eternal life as we drink from the river of life. It is to the river in the City of God that the Lamb is leading his people. It is this City, the New Jerusalem, that is both our hope and our home. So, as we leave church every Sunday, we see the hope that is meant to guide us and inspire us in the week ahead.

We are, of course, in the area of vision and metaphor, a place where language is insufficient and ultimately breaks down as it tries to describe the indescribable. This image, however, of the City of God as our hope and our home is not only to be found in the book of Revelation. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

St Paul also uses the image of the city to express our hope. He tells the Galatians that the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she, he writes, is our mother (Galatians 4:26). St Paul tells the Philippians that even now our citizenship is in heaven. St Paul writes:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.’ (Philippians 3:20–21)

All this is very important because it reminds us that our hope is not for a disembodied state in heaven, but for our bodies to be renewed and transformed to live in the New Jerusalem in a new heaven and earth.

St John writes in our second reading:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

The Resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples not as a disembodied spirit, not as a ghost, but as a real human being with a body (Luke 24:36-43). You could see the scars and place your hand where the spear went into his side. He ate and drank with his disciples. Our hope, then, is that we too will have a resurrected body and that we will be like him.

St John tells us that those who have this hope purify themselves even as he is pure. In other words, our hope for the future will have an effect on how we live here in the present.

Three things, I think, follow from this. Firstly, that the cities that we live in now are not our home. Secondly, that our hope is to journey to the eternal city, the City of God. And thirdly, that the journey begins now.

Any of you who have listened to my Reflections on RTHK Radio 4 this week (and yes, that is a shameless plug; they are still available online and in the Facebook Group!) will have heard me quote St Augustine. St Augustine, a very important saint, wrote these words in what was to become one his major works:

‘Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.’ (Book 14, chapter 28)

The book, The City of God, was to be a foundational text for the Church as it faced the challenges of the Middle Ages. It has continued to be influential since. We all have to choose which of these two cities we want to belong to. Do we want to be citizens of the heavenly city, the City of God, or not?

The first believers believed that the City or Kingdom of God would come in their lifetime. As time went on, however, it became clear that the Kingdom of God was not going to come in their lifetime. And the Church and believers had to adjust and think through what it meant to live as believers in this world, living in this world while belonging to another, the one they hoped would come one day.

While this world hated and persecuted them, as Jesus said it would, it was fairly easy to remember that their allegiance was to the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whose Kingdom does not belong to this world (John 18:36). But when the city of Rome declared for the Kingdom of God, life became more complicated. Popes and bishops, for example, became powerful earthly rulers, and the Church became a major force in earthly political, social, and economic life. Bishops still sit in the British House of Lords, a leftover, a remnant from the time when such positions actually mattered.

Not all in the Church were happy with the accommodation the Church came to with earthly political power. Some saw it as a compromise, at best, and apostasy, at worst. It was in reaction to this accommodation with earthly political power that the monastic movement was born with its desire to escape from this world and to live a purer life separated from it.

Whatever we think of the role the Church has had in the world in the past, it is clear that the Church’s political power and position in this world is coming to an end. The power and influence the Church has had in human society is passing away. Indeed, in many places where the Church formerly exercised political power, it has largely now gone.

Many in the Church find it hard to let go of what the Church once had; others, bewail and mourn its passing and plan and plot how they may get it back. But the loss of what some miss and others try to regain provides us with the chance to rediscover something that has in fact been true all along, something true believers never forgot: this world is not our home; our citizenship is above. We belong to the City of God. This realization should be a cause for rejoicing. It enables us to reassess how we live here in this world, now so openly and increasingly hostile to us and our faith.

It is here that another great book can help us. John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. He wrote it while in prison in Bedford, where I ministered for a number of years and my brother still ministers today. When visiting Bedford, Winnie and I frequently pass the place where John Bunyan was imprisoned. Winnie had her picture taken last summer in a pulpit that John Bunyan preached from. You will have to ask her if you want to see it! The Pilgrim’s Progress has been a very influential and popular book, being translated into 200 languages.

John Bunyan imagines the Christian life as a journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. He describes how Christian, the pilgrim in the story, faces temptations, difficulties, and challenges on his way. Bunyan imagines the Christian life as a journey, as a pilgrimage, from the earthly city to the City of God. He challenges us to see that the cities of this world, the cities of destruction, are not our home. We are not to live by their attitudes and values. We are to live even now by the values and attitudes of the Celestial City, the City of God.

To put it another way: we are all expats here! Here in Hong Kong, we are familiar with the concept of the ‘expat’ because we have had expats living here since Hong Kong was established. I have lived here quite a few years myself, but people still see me as a foreigner. Obviously, they do! You can tell just by looking at me and listening to me that I do not come from Hong Kong. You can see that I am a foreigner.

So, here’s the thing: can people tell simply by looking at us and listening to us that we do not belong here, but belong to the City of God? Can they tell that we are foreigners here?

As Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress discovered, finding the way to the City of God is not always easy. Today is All Saints’ Sunday. You were probably wondering when I was going to get round to that! It is in finding the way to the Celestial City, the City of God, that the saints can help us. They have made the journey and now stand before the throne of God and the Lamb. They show us not only that it is possible to get to the City of God, but how to get there and how to overcome the obstacles on the way.

Now I know that many in the Church are a bit wary of the saints. They ask, don’t we have God? Don’t we have our Lord Jesus Christ? Don’t we have the Holy Spirit? Aren’t they enough? Why do we need the saints? We need to be very careful here, because while it can sound as though we are being very spiritual in saying this, it can also be a form of spiritual arrogance. After all, we have God, we have our Lord Jesus Christ, and we have the Holy Spirit, but, the Bible tells us, we still need each other and we still need the Church. As believers who say the Creeds and mean them, we also believe in the ‘communion of the saints’. This means that we are all joined together, the Church past, present, and future. The saints are God’s gift to the Church.

In his letters, St Paul tells those to whom he writes to imitate him. He presents himself as an example to believers of faith, as a role model for them to copy, a living visual aid to help them on their journey (1 Corinthians 4:16-17; Philippians 3:17). St Paul is critical of those who see leaders such as himself as celebrities, but he knows the value of guides.

On Reflections, this week, I was talking about some of the saints who can act as spiritual guides for us on our journey, who also model faith for us. Saints like Saint Augustine, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Saint Monica, Saint Hildegard, and Saint Catherine.

St Paul writes in Philippians that he is writing to them so that they may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which, he says, ‘you shine like stars in the world’ (Philippians 2:15). The world is in darkness, and while we shine like stars in the world, finding our way through the darkness can be challenging. God has given us the saints as guides to help us on our way.

But the journey must begin! We, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, have to leave the security and comfort of life in the City of Destruction and make our way to the City of God. I have referred to two classic books this morning. Let me close by referring to one more. I do not know how many of you have heard of Thomas a Kempis and his book, The Imitation of Christ. It is one of the best-selling books of all time. So, if you have not heard of it, look it up! It was written in the 15th century. In it, Thomas a Kempis wrote this:

‘For a small income, a long journey is undertaken; for everlasting life, many will scarce once lift a foot from the ground.’ (Book 3, chapter3)

Thomas a Kempis is making the point that we are happy to go on long journeys when there is some material gain for us in this world, but that many of us will not even take the first step towards the City of God.

As we read and think today of those who did lift a foot off the ground, those saints who have gone before us, and who now are standing before the throne of God and the Lamb, let us too begin our journey. Or, if we have begun it, let us press on with it, and not be discouraged or give up, but follow their example and journey towards the City of God. For the Lamb will be our shepherd too and will lead us with all his saints to the river of the water of life.

May we, then, with hope faithfully follow him and all those who have already made the journey and who now stand before the throne and the Lamb.


Monday, October 30, 2023

Even So We Speak

I have not given up hope that one day I won't have to be constantly watching the clock when I preach and that I will be able to take the time I think it needs to preach on the reading in a relaxed way. That day is not yet!

Until it comes, it means making sometimes difficult decisions about what to say and what to leave out.  This week for the Last Sunday after Trinity rather than give a written transcript of the sermon, I have edited the transcript and expanded it a bit.

The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click on the following link:

The Last Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

St Paul, in chapter 1 of his first letter to the Thessalonians, has already referred to the persecution that the Thessalonian believers have suffered since becoming believers (1 Thessalonians 1:6). St Paul will refer to it again later in the chapter from which our reading is taken (1 Thessalonians 2:14). He will tell them that they are not alone and that the believers in Judea are also suffering severe persecution from those they live among.

In our reading for this week, St Paul begins by reminding the Thessalonian believers of the suffering and the opposition he and his team experienced at Philippi before coming to Thessalonica. Before that, St Paul had also experienced real opposition when he had gone to Galatia with Barnabas. Opposition that saw St Paul being stoned and taken for dead (Acts 14:19).

Suffering and persecution were to become the norm in the early church. St Paul in his letters tells believers to expect it, and Jesus had given similar warnings. We are, I think, generally aware that believers in the early Church faced opposition, but we tend to lump it all together and treat it as all being of the same kind. In fact, opposition and persecution came from different sources for different reasons.

Firstly, the early Church experienced opposition from the Jews. We know that the leaders of Jesus’ own people were responsible for his death, and St Paul will refer to the part they played in Jesus’ death, again later in this chapter (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16). While after our Lord’s resurrection many of the Jewish people became believers, there remained many who were opposed to the new movement. St Paul himself was originally one of the leaders of the Jewish opposition to the movement. Ironically, St Paul was himself to be on the receiving end of opposition from Jews, and it was Jews who violently forced him out of Thessalonica when he, St Silvanus and St Timothy first went there (Acts 17:5-9).

Secondly, the early Church experienced opposition from the pagans. At Philippi, for example, it had been from pagans that St Paul and his co-workers had suffered persecution (Acts 16:16-40). Pagans would not normally have worried too much about a new religion. The problem was the exclusive nature of the message that St Paul and his team preached. The demand that the pagans turn from their idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9) did not just have personal consequences for the individual believer, it had social, political, and economic consequences as well. That had been part of the problem at Philippi, while at Ephesus, people responding to the Gospel undermined a whole industry that was based on the worship of the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-41).

Thirdly, opposition also came from within the Church itself. The early Church was originally a movement within Judaism. St Paul was accused by people he describes as ‘false brethren’ (Galatians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 11:13, 26) of teaching Jews to abandon God’s Law and customs integral to Judaism (Acts 20:20-21). It was Jewish believers who caused so much trouble for St Paul within the churches in Galatia and then later in Corinth. It was the fear that St Paul was leading people to abandon God’s Law and Jewish customs that eventually resulted in St Paul losing his freedom.

So, all in all, the early Church found itself having to confront and cope with real opposition on several fronts. When St Paul talks in our reading, then, of having had courage in God, he is not exaggerating. The Church faced opposition on all sides. Faced with such opposition, we might have thought that St Paul and his associates would have been eager to make as many converts as they possibly could, and we might have expected them to tailor their message accordingly. But St Paul is anxious to stress how he, St Silvanus, and St Timothy sought to please God rather than to please any human audience. St Paul refuses to be deterred from preaching the Gospel he has been entrusted with and refuses to try to please those that he is preaching to by changing it in any way. St Paul and his co-workers did not preach what they thought their audience wanted to hear. They did not say what might be to their own benefit, nor did they seek praise or popularity.

Now this uncompromising attitude might have made them seem somewhat hard, cold, and detached. People who refuse to compromise can come across like this. But this was not the case with St Paul and his co-workers. They were so committed to the Thessalonian believers that they were like a nursing mother tenderly taking care of her children. St Paul and his co-workers were committed to God and to the Thessalonians, and it was this dual commitment that was on display when St Paul and his co-workers went to Thessalonica.

Three things, then, from this for us today. Three keywords if you like: opposition, orientation, and operation.

1. Opposition

If we preach the Gospel faithfully, we are going to meet opposition. We should not seek it or provoke it. In fact, St Paul says, that as much as depends on us, we are to live peaceably with everyone (Romans 12:18). And that's not easy, because it means compromising our own feelings and our own desires. But if we are to be faithful to the Gospel, then we, like St Paul, will not be able to compromise our message.

Jesus warned his disciples that if the world had hated him, it would hate them (John 15:18). In the world, Jesus warned them, they would have trouble and (John 16:33). As those societies that have traditionally been sympathetic to the Christian faith turn from it, they will increasingly turn against it. And that is what we are seeing at the moment, and it will only increase and get worse.

There are two reactions in the Church to this. Firstly, to try and hold on to the past, and, secondly, to embrace the changes that we see taking place in society in the hope of keeping our place in it. I think it is the second reaction that is gaining the most pace in the Church at the moment. We in the Church are facing demands from within the Church itself to change traditional doctrine and to embrace a progressive agenda, not least when it comes to sexual ethics.

We need in the Church to wake up to the fact that opposition is coming. We have seen some of the ways that that opposition might come to us in the so-called ‘new atheism’ of a few years ago. It is only going to get worse. And I have to say that most leaders in the Church are in complete denial about this. They hope that by holding on to the past or by becoming more like the world, we will win people back. It isn't going to happen! We in the church need to be prepared for the opposition that we are inevitably going to have to face.

2. Orientation

Opposition is not all bad. It shouldn't be sought, but as Samuel Johnson said in the eighteenth century:

‘Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’

The fact that we are going to face opposition, indeed are already facing it, should make us concentrate and decide what it is that matters to us. It should force us to determine just what our message actually is.

We need in the Church to accept that the past is past. There is no going back to where we were in the world and to the position we once had in it. The Church is not going to have the place, the role, or the influence that it had in the past. And it is not going to regain that place, role, or influence by seeking to be relevant.

As a Church, like St. Paul, we are not called to be either popular or relevant. We are called to have courage. Courage like that of two saints I have mentioned in previous sermons and talks: Saints Perpetua and Felicity. These were two young mothers in the third century who went to their death rather than compromise their faith in the Gospel.

We are to be like them. Their orientation was toward God and what he wanted of them and not to themselves and their own well-being. We are far too concerned with our image, with how we are seen, and with how people respond to us. St Paul knew that the audience he had to please was not the people he was preaching to, but God. The Gospel is a message that we have been entrusted with by God to pass on to people faithfully.

Now, if someone asks you to be a messenger and deliver an important message for them, what matters is that you get the message right. If, for example, someone is sent to tell a whole group of people who live in one particular street that the road is going to be closed or that for their own safety their apartment block needs to be evacuated, the important thing for the messenger is to make sure the message they deliver is accurate and correct. Whether people respond to that message or not is not the messenger’s primary concern. The messenger might hope that those they take it to will respond to the message, but it is getting the message right that they must focus on.

If you were sent with a message like this, you would not think, ‘Well, I'd better change the message so the people who live on the road aren't inconvenienced too much or those in the building are not offended by it.’ You would want to make sure that the message was actually the message you had been given.

God has given us a message, and we change it at our peril, and we fail to take it seriously at our peril. Of course, we hope people will listen. Of course, we will do all that we can to see that they do. But ultimately our concern must be to preach the Gospel faithfully. We must pass on to people the message of the Gospel and God has revealed it to us.

3. Operation

Opposition, orientation, and, thirdly, operation. How we deliver our message is important. Some years ago, Marshall McLuhan - I don't know if anyone remembers him, he was a Canadian philosopher - famously said, the ‘medium is the message’. In other words, how we deliver the message cannot be separated from the message itself. And St Paul makes a similar point in our reading this morning.

God is the one that we are to be orientated towards. God is the one that we are to please as we deliver his message, and as we deliver God's message, St. Paul writes, God will test our hearts. He will test our hearts to make sure our motives are right as we deliver his message and that the way we deliver the message does not change it or distort it.

St Paul stresses that he and his co-workers were anxious to ensure that in delivering the message of the Gospel that they got their motives and methods right. St Paul gives three examples of approaches they refused to use in delivering the message God had given them. They never used flattery, they were not greedy, and they did not seek praise, either from the Thessalonian believers or from anyone else.

Firstly, then, in preaching the Gospel, we too are not to use flattery. We are not to tell people what they want to hear and which makes them feel good about themselves. Again, our main concern is to be whether what we tell is the truth as God has given to us, not whether they will like it or not!

Secondly, we are to avoid greed. We may not be people who preach the Gospel for financial gain, although, sadly, we see examples of so-called evangelists who clearly do. Greed, however, can take many forms. Greed can show itself in ambition and a desire to get on and get ahead. Clergy, for example, are often encouraged to see their ministry in terms of career advancement. We talk about positions in the Church and whether they are senior or not. We discuss what positions clergy have in the hierarchy of the Church. St Paul would be horrified with such talk. He would see it as an example of greed.

Now you may say to me this morning, ‘Ross, that's just sour grapes on your part because you haven’t got very high in the hierarchy.’ Well, fair enough, but if you do not want to listen to me, listen to His Holiness Pope Francis who has said exactly the same thing just this past week!

Thirdly, we should not seek praise. We all like to be popular. It is always nice when people praise us, and we should indeed praise people for doing something good and right for God, but we should not do something good or right in order to get the praise.

Our desire for a response, to do well for ourselves, or to be popular can easily lead us to distort our message and to make ourselves the focus of the message. St Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers in our reading that when it comes to ourselves, we are not to worry about what we can get out of the Gospel; we are to worry about how much we can give for the Gospel. He and Saints Silvanus and Timothy gave their very selves to the Thessalonian believers. We must reject all false methods and motives and be prepared instead to give ourselves completely, so that people that may hear the Gospel.

St Paul writes:

‘… but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the Gospel, even so we speak, not to please people, but to please God who tests our hearts.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:4)


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Dangerous Gamble

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the link to podcast itself:

A Dangerous Gamble

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

We are beginning to read through St Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.

St Paul first went to Thessalonica immediately after he had visited Philippi with Sts Silvanus and Timothy (Acts 17:1-8), and after they had established the church there (Acts 16:11-40). We have been reading through the letter to the Philippians for the past few weeks.

Although he went to Philippi before Thessalonica, St Paul wrote first Thessalonians before he wrote the letter to the Philippians. Some think that it is earliest of St Paul’s letters that we possess. I personally don't think it the earliest, but it is certainly one of the earliest. It was written about AD 50 from Corinth, not long after St Paul’s initial visit to Thessalonica, at a time when Saints Silvanus and Timothy were with him.

St Paul writes of the positive reception he and Sts Silvanus and Timothy received from the Thessalonian believers when they were with them. St Paul sees this as evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in the believers. The faith of the Thessalonian believers, St Paul writes, has become something that is talked about throughout the whole of the region. But what was it about the Thessalonian believers’ faith that got it so talked about?

We don’t really understand nowadays just how significant it would have been for pagans to become believers. The first believers after all were Jews. For Jews who became believers, following Christ was about recognizing Jesus as the Messiah they had been hoping for. This was a major step, but while much changed as a result, much didn’t. The God they believed in remained the same; the Scriptures they used were the same; and how they lived ethically remained largely the same. This was not the case for pagans. For pagans, becoming a follower of Christ involved a complete change in their lifestyle and worldview.

Pagans, for example, made physical representations of their gods. Jews were absolutely forbidden from doing so. Most pagans had no prior knowledge of the Scriptures. When it came to ethics, while there were pagans who lived ethical lives, the pagan gods themselves didn’t much care. The behaviour of the pagan gods in the stories about them left a lot to be desired. Indeed, behavior forbidden to Jews was actually encouraged among pagans, especially when it came to sexual ethics. Hence some of the guidance St Paul gives in his letters to new converts from paganism.

The dramatic change coming to faith in Christ involved for pagan converts helps explain, then, why the Thessalonians becoming believers made such an impact in the region. It was a very big deal indeed. St Paul explains what it meant. St Paul writes:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10, NRSV)

This helps to explain something else that would otherwise be something of a mystery to us. St Paul refers in our reading to the persecution the Thessalonian converts had experienced on becoming believers. He refers to it again in chapter 2 (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Why would these Thessalonians becoming believers attract persecution from their neighbours? Pagans after all worshipped a whole multitude of gods. Why would the Thessalonian converts now worshipping the Jewish God be a problem? Why would anyone care?

The answer is that no-one would have cared, and it wouldn't have been a problem, if the Thessalonian believers worshipped the Jewish God as well as the pagan gods. Some pagans did do just that without it causing too much trouble for them. The problem was, as St Paul explains, that the Thessalonian believers had stopped worshipping the pagan gods to serve the living and true God, and that really was serious.

In the ancient world, worship of the gods wasn't simply a matter of individual choice. Every family had their own household gods. Cities too had their gods and all a city’s citizens were expected to worship and honour them. Rome had a whole variety of gods of which the Emperor himself was one.

There are still parts of our world where changing religion has huge social, even political consequences, but for most who are listening to me now, who we do or do not worship is largely our own affair. So, we naturally find it hard to understand what whom or what you worshiped meant socially, economically, and politically in past ages.

Christians in the early years of the church were to be accused by pagans of being atheists because they did not worship the pagan gods. Later, early in the fifth century, St Augustine was to write one of his most important books, The City of God, to respond to the charge that the reason Rome had suffered a humiliating defeat was because it had abandoned the pagan gods in favour of the Christian religion. Turning from idols to serve the true and living God was serious, with serious consequences for those who made the move, and many believers were even to suffer death because of it.

It is amazing, then, looked at from this perspective, that anyone would want to become a believer; the cost was simply too great. Understanding what it meant for someone to become a believer also helps to explain why St Paul puts so much emphasis on God and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Thessalonians he writes to becoming believers. St Paul writes:

‘For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the Gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5, NRSV)

Given how much the Thessalonians had to lose and the prospect of what they would suffer, it needed God to be at work within them if they were to come to faith. It was because God was at work in them that they were able to receive the word of God with joy from the Holy Spirit, despite the opposition they experienced to them becoming believers.

So, what does all this have to say to us today? Surely it can’t have much to say given that we no longer believe in idols and pagan gods? On the contrary, it has something fundamental to say to us.

An author I much respect has described Christianity as the ‘destroyer of the gods’. What he meant by this was that as Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, as well as not worshipping idols anymore, people stopped believing in their existence. The Christian worldview increasingly became the dominant worldview. It was the dominant worldview, as far as Western civilization was concerned, for many years – until comparatively recently in fact.

It was not that during this time everyone was a Christian – they weren’t; or that there weren't varieties of belief – there were. It is rather that the Christian worldview provided the framework within which society functioned. In recent years, however, there has been a systematic dismantling of this framework of basic Christian assumptions about the world and how we should live in it. We have progressively abandoned fundamental beliefs, not least when it comes to God himself. ‘In God We Trust’ might be printed on what is still the world’s dominant currency, but it is no longer the dominant belief of the country that issues it.

More concerning still, however, is that the church itself has also abandoned many aspects of its historic worldview. Unpacking this would take a lot longer than there is time for here. But let me give an example.

St Paul writes that the change in the Thessalonian believers’ worldview meant that they now were waiting for God’s Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The worldview that most of us operate with has very little place in it for waiting for anything, and we certainly don’t think we need rescuing from the wrath to come, not least because we don’t think there is any wrath to come. We are not here to wait but to get on with enjoying ourselves and to getting the most of out of life. Something that we are constantly being urged to do.

For those who don't believe in God, there is in any case nothing to wait for. However, it is also true that many who do believe in God and in an afterlife also think that God doesn’t want us to wait and that we too are to get on with enjoying life in this world. Many churchgoers also no longer believe there is anything for us to be rescued from, as God (assuming he does exist and even as churchgoers we are not always sure he does) will welcome us anyway. It is, in any case, unthinkable that God would be angry with us and reject us.

Well, that’s fine if that’s what we want to believe, and I accept that it is what the majority of people in the Church do believe, but let’s be clear about one thing. This is a very different worldview and way of thinking to that of our Lord and the New Testament writers. It is also a very different worldview to the worldview that has been held by the Church for most of its history. So, as long as you are happy to gamble on our Lord, the apostles, and the Church all having been wrong and us today being right, then okay. It’s your choice. I have to tell you, though, that for me it is far too big a gamble to take.

And just remember this: you are not only taking a gamble on how you live in the present, in this life; you are gambling on whether you will live at all, in the future, in the next life. What is more, if we do make that gamble, then not only will it affect how we see and live our own lives now as individuals, it will also affect how we as a church see our mission and purpose as a church.

For this talk of worldview is not simply an issue of only theoretical concern. Our worldview results in a radical difference in how we live as followers of Christ and how we function as the body of Christ. Just how radical a difference has been brought home to me recently reading some devotional writing of those in the past who thought about things in the way the New Testament writers thought about them and comparing it with devotional writing today. The priorities and outlook are very different.

‘You shall call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’, the Angel said to Joseph (Matthew 1:23). We, however, have decided we don't need saving. Sin is someone else's problem; it’s not ours. All I can say is that looking at our world and the state it is in, it needs an awful lot of courage to believe that we don’t need saving and to think that everything is going to be alright. I would suggest this morning that we need to start taking the Biblical worldview a lot more seriously, and if we do, then that’s going to have huge consequences for us and how we live both as individuals and as a church. Like the Thessalonians, we too are going to be unpopular with our compatriots and on the receiving end of persecution as a result.

In closing, then, a question: what do you believe in when there is nothing left to believe in? We stopped believing in idols some years ago; now we have stopped believing in God. Instead, we believe in ourselves, a belief that is now at the heart of our worldview. Getting people to change their worldview, to turn from our idols to serve the Living and True God, isn’t going to be easy.

Our idolatry of Self and our determination to live for the moment is now integral to how we see ourselves and our world. Convincing people to turn from this idolatry to the living God is not going to be achieved through better marketing, special campaigns, or by forming more committees. It will only be achieved when our message, like that of Sts Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, comes to people ‘not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction’.

And for that to happen it needs to come to each one of us that way first.


Saturday, October 14, 2023

Think On These Things

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

This is the link to podcast itself:

Think On These Things

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 4:1-9

This week at Christ Church, it is our Harvest Festival service. The format of this service does not easily allow for a recorded version of the sermon. I have, therefore, recorded the following version of the sermon for this week’s podcast. This explains why it may sound different to usual!

The reading from St Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi is the last of the readings the lectionary gives us from St Paul's letter to the Philippian believers. Next week, our second reading will be from the (first) letter to the Church at Thessalonica. Thessalonica was the place that Saints Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy visited after they left Philippi on their first visit there to preach the Gospel (Acts 17:1-8). When St Paul refers in his letters to the Macedonian churches, the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica are two of the churches he is referring to.

Of all of his churches, the Macedonian churches seem to have given St Paul the maximum of support and the minimum of trouble. We have seen how at Philippi the main issue seems to have been the all-too-common problem of people not getting on with each other. St Paul refers to a specific example of this in the first few verses of chapter 4.

St Paul directly asks two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to agree in the Lord. He also appeals to another unnamed person to help them to do this. St Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as having struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel together with someone called Clement and the rest of his co-workers. We know nothing more of Euodia, Syntyche, the unnamed companion, and Clement. This is a good reminder to us that there is so much about St Paul and his ministry that we do not know. What we do know is that, contrary to the way some people think of him, St Paul did not work alone but had many co-workers who worked with him.

Having made this personal appeal, St Paul tells the Philippian believers to rejoice in the Lord always, and to emphasize the importance of what he is telling them to do, he repeats it.

St Paul then tells them that they are not to worry about anything, but instead to pray and make their requests known to God. If they do this, St. Paul writes, the peace of God will guard their hearts and minds. It is the words from this verse that we quote in the blessing at the end of our services.

Finally, St Paul tells them, they are to think good thoughts. They are to think about whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything in which there is excellence and which is worthy of praise. St Paul closes by telling them to take him as their role model and to copy his example.

St Paul packs a lot into just a few verses and unpacking it would take longer than I have. So just a few thoughts about what St Paul writes.

1. Rejoice

Firstly, we too are to rejoice in the Lord, that is, we are to have joy in the Lord. Joy isn't the same as happiness. I do not imagine that St Paul was particularly happy at being in prison. Joy is more than a passive emotion that we experience as a reaction to our situation in life or to something that gives us pleasure in it. It is about the certainty and confidence that comes from actively and consciously putting our trust in the Lord. ‘Joy in the Lord’ enables us to rise above our circumstances and our emotions.

As believers, we do not, or at least we should not, rejoice in ourselves and in our own abilities. We should not put our trust in what we own or any of the outward things that we are told will give us security, purpose, and fulfilment in life. As believers, we rejoice in the Lord, knowing that the Lord is the one who cares for us and who will look after us, whatever our circumstances.

This is why St Paul can write, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ It is why he personally can rejoice, even though he is in prison not knowing whether he will live or die. It is why he can rejoice despite all the suffering and hardship he has been through and knows he will still have to go through, even if he is released.

Rejoicing in the Lord is not about a superficial sense of well-being. It is not a feeling that can be induced or comes from anything we might do. It is rather a deliberate expression of the assurance we have as believers that whatever may happen to us, good or bad, God is in control and is on our side.

So, even though we may weep, either because of our own pain or in seeing the suffering of others, we can still rejoice in the Lord, knowing that God is with us and, as St Paul writes, that the Lord is near.

2. Pray

Secondly, we are to pray and not worry. It is because we rejoice in the Lord and put our trust in him that we do not need to worry. That does not stop us worrying, of course. We are human after all, and we find ourselves worrying about all sorts of things: about our family, our career, our money, our health; but we also worry about the everyday things in life whether it as mundane as shopping for our families or simply where we should go on holiday.

St Paul, however, does not say that we are not to worry selectively. It is not that it is alright to worry about some things and not about others; St Paul says we are not to worry about anything. This would be unrealistic advice and impossible to follow unless we were able to rejoice in the Lord first and foremost. It is, however, because we can rejoice in the Lord that we can be freed from worry.

Imagine, for example, that you are out on your own somewhere one night and you suspect that someone is following you intent on causing you harm. Then you see someone you know and trust. You rejoice at seeing them. You tell them your worry and fear, and you feel safe as a result.

If we rejoice in the Lord, we will tell him our worries and fears. If we do, St Paul writes, then the peace of God, which is greater than our minds can understand, will protect both our hearts and minds.

This will not, however, just happen. We have in everything, St Paul writes, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving to make our requests known to God. We all know it is good manners to say thank you for something we are given. Normally, however, we say thank you after we have been given it. When we make our requests to God, we are to say thank you even as we ask him for something. We do that because we are sure that the Lord hears us and wants to answer our prayers.

Rejoicing always, not worrying about anything, but praying in everything calls, however, for a different way of thinking to what we are used to and to the way we are taught by the world in which we live.

3. Think

So, thirdly, we are to take care of how we think. Our minds matter. St Paul tells the Philippians in chapter 2 that we are to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus. We are to think the way Jesus thought and to think about things the way he thought of them. We can’t serve God if our minds are always on ourselves. Nor can we serve him if we don't trust him or if our minds are on other things.

We are often distracted or diverted by our thoughts. Distracted, as we have mentioned, by worry and the cares of this life. We are also diverted by thoughts that lead us astray or even which lead us to do things that are wrong. Jesus said:

‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.’ (Matthew 15:19)

Thoughts come from within and often they come to us without warning. We might respond to this by saying, ‘I can't help what I think!’ But that is only partly true. We can cultivate damaging thoughts by dwelling on them or by dwelling on what encourages them.

The internet, for example, is a breeding ground for bad thoughts. I'm not suggesting avoiding the internet altogether, that simply is not possible nowadays. We do, however, need to give more thought to what we expose our ourselves to online and what thoughts are stimulated in us as a result.

Young people, for example, are being exposed to some very extreme material online from a very early age. Those who work with young people are reporting how this is affecting young people’s relationships and behaviour towards each other in destructive and at times alarming ways. What is particularly disturbing is how young men are expecting their girlfriends to do things they have seen being performed in hardcore pornography. And it is not just young people who are being negatively affected in this way. We are all affected by it to a significant extent, often more than we realize.

‘Whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything in which there is excellence and which is worthy of praise.’ These are things that St Paul tells us we are to think about. We need to keep this in mind as we browse online and on social media. We need not just to censor ourselves and shut out evil; we need positively to seek out good things to see and to hear, to read and to watch, to concentrate and to dwell on. If evil comes from within us, we need to take care what we allow into us.

Rejoice in the Lord; don’t worry, pray; think good thoughts. It is hard for us to do this; we are novices in the spiritual life. This is why we need role models, people to teach and to guide us. We are, though, very proud, and we don't like to admit our ignorance. We don't like people telling us what to do, even less how to think. We wonder, then, why it is we make so little progress and get into so much trouble. The spiritual life doesn't just happen. We need both to make an effort and to get help from those who are skilled and experienced in it. Pride has no place in spiritual growth.

St Paul urged the Philippian believers to learn from him. We too can learn from mature believers in the Church today. But we also have the example of the saints who gone before us. Some believers reject looking to the saints as guides. It is our loss if we do. We need all the help we can get. It will soon be All Saints’ Sunday. The lives of the saints are a great gift from God to us. We need to look to the saints and learn from them, as we join our prayers with theirs.

May we rejoice in the Lord always, pray in everything, and think about those things worth thinking about!