Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Last Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week the Last Sunday after Trinity.

The Last Sunday after Trinity 

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This week’s second reading is from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. The Church at Thessalonica was one of the Churches that St Paul is referring to in his letters when he talks about the Churches of Macedonia. Another Macedonian Church, of course, is the Church at Philippi. These Macedonian Churches seem to have been the Churches that were the most supportive of St Paul’s ministry. They did not give him the problems that he had, for example, with Churches such as the Church at Corinth.

St Paul refers in our reading to his first visit when the Church was established in about AD51. He writes about how he and his co-workers, St Silvanus and St Timothy, had been ‘shamefully mistreated at Philippi’ (1 Thessalonians 2:2). St Luke describes both the mistreatment and the establishment of the Church at Thessalonica in Acts chapter 17. All this took place on what is somewhat misleadingly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey. This was when St Paul and his team where forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel in Asia and, instead, St Paul is given a vision of a man from Macedonia, who says in the vision, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16:9).

St Paul and his co-workers respond at once to the vision. The first place they visit, as we have been seeing in the sermon series on the letter to the Philippians, is Philippi. After St Paul and his team leave Philippi, they travel down the Via Egnatia, the Roman road linking the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire with Rome, and come to Thessalonica, some 95 miles from Philippi. I think it likely that this was one of the times that St Paul intended to travel on to Rome but was ‘prevented’ (Romans 1:13).

Thessalonica was the capital city of the Province. St Luke tells us that they preached in the synagogue there for ‘three sabbaths’, but were forced to stop because of violent opposition from the Jewish community. From what St Paul writes in the two letters to the Thessalonian believers, it doesn’t seem they immediately left Thessalonica itself. St Paul describes how they ‘worked night and day’, not only in preaching the Gospel but to pay for their stay there and to avoid being a financial burden on the Church.

Nevertheless, St Luke in Acts (Acts 17) and St Paul in this letter both make clear that the opposition got so severe in Thessalonica that St Paul had to leave abruptly, and far sooner than he wanted. The opposition was directed particularly at St Paul personally, as it often was. It was so bad that, even though the Jews in Beroea, the next place they went to, were initially more receptive, Jews from Thessalonica pursued him and stirred up trouble for him there too. The result was that St Paul, not for the first time in his ministry, had to flea for his life, this time by sailing to Athens.

St Paul and St Luke tell us that St Paul sent St Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the Thessalonians were getting on. St Paul’s concern is that having only been with them for such a short period of time, and then leaving them so suddenly, the Church might not have survived. He realized too that the opposition to the Gospel would not end just because he had left. St Paul makes repeated references in the letter to the suffering and persecution that the Thessalonian believers are themselves experiencing.

Eventually, St Timothy comes back from Thessalonica and meets up with St Paul in Corinth. He is able to put St Paul’s mind at rest concerning the Church at Thessalonica and update him on what has happened since St Paul was forced to leave. St Paul then sends this letter to them to encourage them and to give them advice on a number of issues.

The main emotion that St Paul has in writing this letter is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving that God has chosen the Thessalonian believers; thanksgiving for their response to the Gospel; and thanksgiving that they are persevering. The response of the Thessalonian believers has been such that everyone has heard of their faith. Their response to the Gospel has made a big impression in the regions round about. 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 1:8-10)

This really is a big deal. The pagan gods that the Thessalonian believers turned from were part of the social, political, and economic fabric of society. By turning from them, not only did the Thessalonian believers suffer persecution for doing so, they were also alienating themselves from the life of the city in a radical and costly way. Faith is something that each individual needs to have for themselves, but it isn’t only a personal and private matter, it has huge social consequences. St Paul is relieved and grateful that despite the opposition they have experienced from other Thessalonians the Thessalonian believers have, nevertheless, remained firm in their faith.

In the passage from the letter for this week, St Paul writes how his coming to them was ‘not in vain’. Now, given that the Thessalonians have responded so enthusiastically to the Gospel despite so much opposition, we might be tempted to think that it is the Thessalonian believers’ response that St Paul is referring to. In other words, that St Paul is saying that he and his co-workers’ coming was not in vain because the Thessalonian believers responded to their message. That is not, however, what he writes. He writes that their coming was not in vain, because they, that is, St Paul and his co-workers, had the courage to preach ‘in spite of great opposition’ (1 Thessalonians 2:2). St Paul puts the emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word, not on the Thessalonian believers’ response to it. Their response was important, but that the Gospel was proclaimed far more so.

Following on from this, St Paul writes something that every preacher should take to heart:

‘ … 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)

When he preached, what mattered to St Paul in his preaching was pleasing God, not in the first-place winning converts, and his desire to please God affected how he preached the Gospel. If what matters to you is people’s response, then you will focus on the methods you use to get the best response, even tailoring your message to make it more acceptable. St Paul, however, refused to go down that path. He did not use words of ‘flattery’ (1 Thessalonians 2:5). He doesn’t appeal to what he knows his audience likes or wants to hear, but concentrates instead on what God wants them to hear - whether they want to hear it or not!

Not only does his satisfaction in preaching the word of God not come from getting people to respond, it does not come from any financial reward he gets for preaching either (1 Thessalonians 2:5). St Paul probably feels the need to say this because, then as now, there were plenty of people who acted, not out of a commitment to the truth, but out of a desire to make money. Sadly, we know of all too many in the Church today who have gotten rich on preaching the Gospel. St Paul makes it very clear, as did our Lord, that those who preach the Gospel should get paid for preaching the Gospel: ‘the worker is worthy of his hire’ (Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:14), as Jesus puts it. But the motivation for preaching the Gospel should not be money, and when it comes to the money ministers of the Gospel receive: enough is enough!

The fact that St Paul had to leave Thessalonica so suddenly may have left him open to accusations of being a trickster who had been after the Thessalonian believers money. It may even have been falsely rumoured that St Paul left when he was found out The fact that he didn’t take any of their money, but worked night and day to pay his way, as the Thessalonian believers know he did, effectively answers any possible criticism on that score!

It is God St Paul preaches to please. But that doesn’t mean St Paul couldn’t care less about the Thessalonian believers. Anything but. St Paul sees the fact that the Thessalonian believers respond to the Gospel as evidence that God has chosen them (1 Thessalonians 1:4) and that they are God’s children and, therefore, part of the family of God. St Paul repeatedly uses family language throughout the letter. He constantly addresses them, for example, as brothers and sisters. In our passage this week, he describes how he was simultaneously like a child, a mother, and a father when he was with them. He uses these images to stress how he was gentle like a child with them, how he nurtured them like a mother nurses her children, and how he guided them as a father.

St Paul, then, spends the first part of the letter going over his relationship with the Thessalonian believers. He establishes the priority of the Gospel, emphasizes the importance of remaining faithful to it, and of persevering despite opposition. He confirms the depth of his feeling for them and the relationship between them. It is only once he has done this that he goes on to answer the questions he has heard they have and to give them teaching about how they are to live for Christ.

So, what can we learn from what he has written so far? I want to highlight three things:

1. The Church is a family

Christ Church seeks to be a family Church. We welcome everyone whatever their age or background. We are blessed to have families with three generations belonging to the Church. We are especially pleased to see families with children coming to Church. But being a family Church doesn’t stop there. We want to be a family in how we relate to one another and how we behave as a Church.

I imagine that many would agree with this sentiment. It sounds nice, doesn’t it, and many Churches would share our aim. But wanting to be a family Church isn’t just a nice idea; if we are serious it has to affect how we go about being the Church. Being a family Church should determine how we relate to each other; how we organize ourselves; and how we make decisions about our life as a Church. St Paul writes:

‘So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

As we have seen, the images St Paul uses to describe his relationship with them are all family images. In his other letters, he will use other images alongside that of the family to describe the Church. He will write, for example, of how we are the ‘body of Christ’ and the ‘temple of Holy Spirit’. The one image, however, he doesn’t use to describe what the Church is like is that of a business.

And yet, it is the business model, despite all our fine sounding talk using the Biblical images, that predominates in how we go about being the Church today. I remember when I first came to Christ Church. Just before the first Church Council meeting, I was chatting quite informally with one of the members. When the meeting started, however, he suddenly started addressing me, not as Ross, but as Mr Chairman. Thankfully, no-one calls me that now!

The business model is to be seen, for example, in the way we elect members to Church synods and councils, hold Annual General Meetings (when we are allowed to), and make decisions by formal motions. We even have legal canons and need lawyers to interpret them. Our structures and the way we do things are, in other words, no different to that of any business. If you organize yourself as a business, you will think like a business.

This is why, for example, we talk about promoting the Church rather than proclaiming the Gospel; getting members, rather than making disciples; and doing fund-raising, rather than giving generously. It is why we have mission statements. Why we are so obsessed with property and accounts. Why we judge success, not by spiritual growth, but by the numbers attending services. Why how much money church-goers pledge matters more than the spiritual commitment they make.

I love the Church, but I hate the way we do Church.

We desperately need to take seriously what it means to be the family of God, not as a nice idea when we meet for worship and chat over coffee on a Sunday, but as the model for how we go about being the Church.

This should affect every aspect of our church life including all the practicalities associated with it. Families need a place to live and families need to do their household accounts, but the way they do all this is very different to how a business will do it. We need to stop thinking of the Church as a religious business and take seriously what it means to be the family of God.

2. We must be true to our foundation

What is striking, in even a superficial reading of first Thessalonians, is how St Paul keeps reminding the Thessalonian believers of the word of God that he preached when he came to them. He uses phrases such as ‘as you know’, ‘you remember’, ‘you are aware’ frequently throughout the letter. St Paul will tell them in chapter 3:

‘For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’ (1 Thessalonians 3:8)

In 1 Corinthians, he writes:

‘According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)

Being a follower of Christ is not easy, as the Thessalonians were finding out. It is not easy simply keeping the teaching of Jesus; it is even harder when our culture is founded on ideas and attitudes totally at variance with it; and even harder still when we are mocked or attacked for our faith. We will soon fall if we don’t have a firm foundation. We need to be like the wise man who built his house on the rock Matthew 7:24-27). This means that all of us individually we need to know our faith and be committed to it.

The same is true for us as the family of God, that is, corporately as the Church.

One of my main concerns in my own ministry at the moment is the extent to which the Church is abandoning the foundations of its faith. This is happening quite consciously and deliberately. We are so anxious to be seen to be relevant and to keep our place in the world that we are adopting the values and attitudes of the world around us, rather than standing firm on the foundation of our faith.

The Creeds of the Church, for example, which were once seen as providing a basic summary of what we believe, are now often dismissed as simply being what some people in the Church believed at the time they were written. This might have some justification if the Creeds were being rejected as un-Biblical, but the reason for their rejection is often precisely because they are Biblical and state Biblical teaching in a succinct way.

All too often in describing how we should live as believers, we begin by assuming that what we now believe to be right must be right. Having made this assumption, when we come to interpret and understand the Bible, we can then take one of two approaches.

Firstly, we can say that the Bible is wrong if it doesn’t teach what we know to be right and simply ignore what it says. This, at least, is an honest approach.

Another approach, and one which is increasingly being used, is to read what we think to be self-evidently true back into the Bible.

If we today are sure we know something is right and true, and we believe the Bible to teach what is right and true, then, it follows, or so we think, that the Bible must teach what we believe. If it doesn’t seem to at first sight, then we assume that this must be because we have been understanding and interpreting it incorrectly. We then go to great lengths to interpret it in such away as to make it mean what we want it to mean.

And so, for example, when it comes to issues of human sexuality and gender, we begin with what we now believe to be true, and then seek to show how the Bible agrees with us, even if for two thousand years no-one has understood it this way.

There is a need for open and honest discussion of the issues that are facing us in the Church and world today. But we need to begin not with what we want to believe or think to be right, but with what the Bible teaches. There will be a need for us to ask all sorts of questions about interpretation and application, but we need to begin with what God has said, not with what we would have liked him to have said.

There is a wonderful hymn the first verse of which is:

‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
you, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?’

3. We need to be faithful in our proclamation

Our business-driven model of the Church means that we worry about Church attendance. This is not without some justification. We want people to come to know Christ. And to be entirely honest with you, I prefer a Church with people in it than one without. Sadly, church attendance in many parts of the world is declining drastically. Just this week, I was reading about how attendance in the Church of England seems now to be in terminal decline.

Paradoxically, however, the answer to such decline is not to think how we can attract more members. When we make attracting members our main priority we will, as St Paul puts it, engage in flattery. We don’t call it that, we call it trying make our message more relevant or appealing. Once we do that, however, even if it is for the best of motives, it won’t be long before we start to change our message. This often begins by leaving out of our proclamation those parts that we think will put people off. Certainly, telling people that they have to deny themselves, if they want to be a follower of Christ, isn’t going to immediately attract people.

But it doesn’t stop there: once we have left parts out, the temptation then is to change what we actually do say, so that what we say is what we think people want to hear. How God loves them, for example, just as they are; that it’s not their fault they have made such a mess of their lives; that it will all be OK in the end.

But here’s the thing: St Paul would challenge us to stop worrying about being liked and being popular. Of course, we want to present the word of God in an as attractive a way as possible. We want to make sure we are speaking in a way that people can understand. But we are to do all this knowing that the person we are seeking to please is not the person we are hoping will become a member of the family, but God himself. The audience we have to please is God.

At the end of a sermon, the question I have to ask myself is not what you thought of it, but what did God think of it. I hope you will find what I say interesting and will want to listen to me, but that cannot, or at least it should not, be my main concern. Each time I preach, I have to ask whether I have said everything that God wants me to say irrespective of whether you like it or not, or find it interesting or not.

Indeed, the reality is that very often people won’t find what we say interesting, and very often they won’t like what we say. Sometimes, not only will they not respond positively to our message, they will find our message deeply offensive and want to stop us from spreading it. Just as they did with St Paul and his co-workers; just as they did with the Thessalonian believers themselves; and just as they did with our Lord himself.

The good news is that the growth of the Church and who does or does not respond to the Gospel is God’s concern. Our concern is to please God in what we preach and then give ourselves completely to those that God gives to us. Numbers will go up and down. The size of our congregation is not what matters; what matters is whether we are faithful in our preaching of the word of God.

When I appear before the judgement seat of Christ, the question I will be asked won’t be about how many people came to hear me preach, but whether I was faithful in what I preached.

And so, like the Thessalonian believers, may we too learn from the example of Saints Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. May we make it our goal to be the family of God, built on the foundation of the word of God, and to be faithful in proclaiming the Gospel of God, which has been entrusted by God to us, the chosen of God.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Podcast Link

I have started a weekly podcast, which is available on a variety of platforms including Spotify.  

Initially, at least, it will concentrate on sermons and talks on the weekly lectionary readings.

This is the Spotify link:

Ross on Spotify

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast talk for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity. I have also posted separately the parable I have written to go with it!

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:15-22

At this moment, in 2020, we are living through tumultuous times. We are all having to change the way we live because of the present pandemic. The pandemic will eventually come to an end and, at the end of it, all our lives will doubtless have been affected. We are, though, also living through other events that too will permanently change our lives, more so than even the pandemic. We are witnessing huge political and social changes both in the west, not least, for example, in America with the presidential election and the BLM movement, and also here in Hong Kong with, for example, the protests and the national security law, which is China’s response to them.

This week’s Gospel reading raises, then, an important question for believers. Our Lord said, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s.’ But what is the emperor’s and what is God’s? And what, more broadly, should be our attitude to the ‘emperors’ of today? How are we to view those who rule and those who aspire to rule in the world?

Our Lord’s saying had a context, and we need to begin by seeing what that context was. In Matthew’s Gospel, the incident described in our Gospel reading took place during what we now refer to as Holy Week, that is, the week leading up to the crucifixion of our Lord. In Matthew chapter 21, St Matthew has described how our Lord, on what we know now as Palm Sunday, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This seemingly innocuous act, which we have domesticated and, dare I say, trivialized, was, in fact, a highly inflammatory and political act. It was how the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah, the rightful King of Israel, would enter the holy City when he appeared (Zechariah 9:9).

The significance of Jesus’ action was not, however, lost on the crowd. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they cry (Matthew 21:9). This cry is an acknowledgement that Jesus is the true heir to the throne of David, the greatest King Israel had ever known. That our Lord chose to make this symbolic act at Passover, which celebrates the people of Israel’s liberation from slavery under a pagan ruler made it all the more pointed and significant.

Our Lord didn’t stop there. He proceeded to the Temple where he ‘cleansed’ it by violently getting rid of those who were desecrating it (Matthew 21:12-17). No wonder that those in positions of power and authority demand to know by what authority he does this (Matthew 21:23). Jesus, however, refuses to tell them; he tells them, instead, three parables.

The first parable (Matthew 21:28-32) is about a man who had two sons whom he wants to do work for him. One son, at first, seems unwilling, but eventually he does what his father wants. The other son claims to be willing, but does not do what his father asks. Jesus says the tax-collectors and prostitutes, those regarded as the worst type of sinners, are like the first son because despite their sin, they have repented and put their faith in him. The religious leaders are like the second son. They might claim to be obedient, but they don’t do what God wants. They are all talk.

The second parable (Matthew 21:33-44) is about a landowner who had a vineyard that he leased to tenants who try to get it for themselves, killing the landowner’s son in the effort. Jesus says that the religious leaders are like those tenants and God will punish them just as the landowner punished the wicked tenants.

The third parable (Matthew 22:1-14), which we looked at last week, is about a King who held a wedding feast that all those who were originally invited refused to go to. The King gathers unlikely guests in their place, punishing those who would not come. But even the new guests can’t expect to get in unconditionally for many indeed may be called, but few are actually chosen.

St Matthew tells us:

‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.’ (Matthew 21:45-46)

Unable, then, to act directly against Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees instead try to entrap him. In an attempt to do this, they send along their representatives together with the ‘Herodians’ to ask him a question. The Herodians are not a group we know a lot about. It was a group made up of those who supported the political government of the day. Herod himself was the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee where Jesus comes from. Think the pro-government parties in parliament today.

They begin by flattering Jesus and saying that they know he will give an honest answer. The question the representatives of the Pharisees and the Herodians then ask Jesus seems reasonable enough. They say to him:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ (Matthew 22:21)

This helps to explain why the Herodians are there. At first, it seems strange that the Pharisees should team up with the Herodians. The Pharisees didn’t like Roman rule any more than most of the people did. The Herodians, however, depended on the Romans for their position and influence. While, however, the Pharisees hate the Romans, they hate Jesus more. They know that if Jesus says that it is unlawful for the Jews to pay taxes to Rome, then the Herodians will do their work for them. Jesus will be dealt with ruthlessly.

However, if Jesus tries to escape by saying it is lawful to pay taxes, then he will have discredited himself in the eyes of the people. Everyone hates taxes, but the tax to the Emperor was about more than money. It represented Israel’s political slavery to Rome. By making the Jewish people pay it, Rome demonstrated who it was who had the power. How could someone who claimed to be their King, believe it was lawful to acknowledge someone else as the ruler over them?

The Pharisees have been opposed to Jesus from the start of his work, and Jesus has now in his parables made his view of them plain. This is their chance to get rid of him or, at least, to thoroughly discredit him.

The Pharisees, like everyone else, Jesus’ own disciples included, probably thought that becoming King, over-throwing the Romans, and establishing his Kingdom in this world was actually Jesus’ goal.

Given this, their calculation is that Jesus has little choice but to say that taxes should NOT be paid to the Emperor. The Jewish people were subject to a greater law than that of the Romans. Jesus was acting like he was the King; if he wanted go on being seen as the King he had to answer, or so they thought, that it was not lawful to pay taxes. Once he did this, they would have him. End of problem. And they wouldn’t have to lift a finger, the Herodians would do that for them. The Pharisees could claim they have asked a legitimate question, it is not their fault what happens as a result of Jesus’ reply to their question.

Jesus gives what is universally regarded as a brilliant answer. He asks for the coin used for the tax. This is a silver denarius. It was the equivalent of the daily wage of a labourer. On one side, it had the image of the Emperor with in Latin the words: ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus’. On the other, it had the image of a goddess with the words, ‘High Priest’. The Pharisees themselves couldn’t be blamed for having the coin – as some commentators suggest they should be– but they could be blamed for holding on to it. Jesus tells them:

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22:21) 

The problem for the Pharisees is that they assume that Jesus is like them; that his goal is political power and position. They don’t know that this was one of the Devil’s tests that Jesus had faced at the start of his ministry. Jesus had, at the outset of his ministry, resolutely rejected the offer of the very power and glory that everyone thinks he is now in Jerusalem to claim.

Jesus does seek a kingdom but, as he says to Pilate after being betrayed by one his own disciples, his ‘Kingdom is not of this world’. If it were his followers would be fighting for him (John 18:36). Pilate himself would have no authority over Jesus if it hadn’t been given to him ‘from above’ (John 19:11). Pilate and his limited power isn’t important or powerful enough to waste time in fighting. Jesus’ Kingdom is a different type of Kingdom. The powers Jesus is about to confront are greater than Caesar’s armies, and Jesus’ way of defeating them is by suffering and shame, not through power and might.

It still is his way.

Jesus saw a cross and, in this sign, he conquered. In AD312 before a critical battle, Constantine, who sought to be Emperor himself, also saw a cross in a vision, and seeing it as a sign, used it to conquer the armies that opposed him. In so doing, he transformed the cross into a symbol of the very power our Lord had rejected as demonic.

The Emperor Constantine was to offer the Church a similar partnership to that which the Devil offered Jesus. This time the offer was accepted. The Church went on to enter a relationship with the world and with those who exercised political power in it that has shaped it ever since.

[I have tried to explain how I see this relationship in a simple parable. It is available to read in the Christ Church Facebook Group and on my own personal website.]

Now to be fair, the relationship has not been all bad. A recent book by the author, Tom Holland, tellingly called Dominion, describes some of the good. The Church has exercised influence over the world, but, equally, the world has exercised influence over the Church. This, however, is not the time to rake over the past. It is what it is. Far more important is where we are now and where we go from here.

As I try to make clear through the parable, the world has decided it has had enough. It wants a divorce. And in the same way that former lovers often end up hating one another, the world is increasingly hating and despising the Church it once loved and used.

The Church, for its part, finds it hard to let go of the relationship it has had in the past with the political powers of this world and which has been so central to how it understands itself and its mission.

It is particularly hard for Anglicans. We took getting into bed with earthly rulers to a new level of intimacy. In the 16th century, when the Pope refused to grant the King of England a divorce, we stepped up and obliged, and so became identified with the state in the most intimate of ways. As England, and then Great Britain, marched on to become a world super-power, we marched enthusiastically with her.

Those who point the finger at the Church and accuse us of complicity in the colonialism of the past have a point. Again, personally, I don’t think it was all bad. After all, in even a destructive and abusive human relationship, a child can be born who goes on to do great and good things. So, too, with our relationship with political power. We can be proud of our children despite the inappropriateness of the relationship through which they were born.

However, just as people in relationships that are coming to an end find it hard to let go and do all they can to please their lover in the hope that the relationship can be saved, so too it seems we are willing to do what we can to maintain a relationship that, in reality, ended, to all intents and purposes, many years ago.

Perhaps worse still, to change the metaphor, we are so used to having a seat at the table of earthly political power and influence that we don’t want to lose it. Power not only corrupts, it is highly addictive.

We need to accept it is over, and come to terms with what it means for us as the Church. Rather than mourning what is lost, we need to see this moment in history as a chance to re-think what our role and mission in the world ought to be. This is an amazing opportunity. In the same way as someone who is eventually freed from an abusive relationship can begin to regain their self-respect and confidence and so begin find their own identity outside of their former relationship, so, too, the end of Christendom (the name given to the partnership between the church and the world) can be a chance for us to re-discover our calling to be the people of God.

It will be painful, as the end of all relationships, even abusive relationships, always are. However, instead of re-writing our liturgy, re-defining our doctrines, and changing our ethics to please the world and hold on to our place in it, we have a chance to abandon the idolatry that is at the heart of any relationship with earthly political power and instead to ‘worship the Lord our God and serve only him (Matthew 4:10).

By accepting the relationship is over, our liturgy can be about worshipping God rather than about being relevant to the world; our doctrine can be about what God has revealed to us about himself, not what we think the world might find it acceptable to believe; and our ethics can be about obeying God, not accommodating to the values and attitudes of society around us.

Make no mistake, this is not going to be easy. Old habits die hard. Ironically, our former partner may make it easier for us. So far, the world has tolerated its former partner. There is now evidence that it wants rid of us altogether. The reaction, for example, to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the United States exposes how some feel about any suggestion that faith in Christ has a place to play in a nation’s life. The nomination of a woman and a mother you would have expected to be welcomed, instead she has been vilified for no other reason than actually believing what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Such reactions are by no means confined to the United States. We can all expect more of the same.

How then is the Church to see its mission in this brave new world determined to go it alone? For many, political power and involvement have been so integral to how they understand the Church’s mission that it remains inconceivable to them that we should abandon it, even though the political powers have not only abandoned us, but are now often openly hostile as well. The statements of Church leaders, for example, continue to make more mention of the political issues of our day than they do of God. Who do they think is listening to them? We are urged in our mission to be ‘for the City’. In chapter 11, Matthew writes:

‘Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum,

will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.

For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’ (Matthew 11:20-24)

Was our Lord ‘for the city’ when he said this?

Our mission statements too continue to focus primarily on social and economic areas, and this at a time when many are desperate for spiritual meaning and, ironically, are turning to ancient forms of paganism to find it. New age beliefs and practices are thriving. In schools, mindfulness and positive education seek to fill the void that has been created by the very materialistic philosophies that are taught in those same schools.

Now is the time to change.

Here, in this world, ‘we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14). Our’ citizenship is in heaven. And it is from there that we are expecting a saviour, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Philippians 3:20). While we wait for him, we ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth’ (Colossians 3:2).

These words from the New Testament are like a forgotten language to us, but one we need to learn to speak again. We will do so knowing the trouble it will bring. In this world, we will have trouble (John 16:33) and in the same way it hated our Lord, as we again speak for him, so too it will hate us (John 15:18).

Rather than being surprised at the society’s hatred of us, we should be happy. Did not our Lord warn us that this is what we should expect if we are faithful to him? Did he not say:

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Matthew 5:11-12)

We rejoice to be the Church of the martyrs; those who ‘love not their lives unto death’; those who see the Cross not as a sign of triumph and glory in this world, but of defeat and death; those who rejoice, not in having power and position, but in suffering and service. We rejoice to be a Church which is not ashamed of the Gospel, knowing that it is the ‘power of God unto salvation’, a power that no earthly power can ultimately resist. A Church which rejects the Devil’s offer of all the Kingdoms of this world because we know that our Kingdom is from above.

At this critical moment in history, we are called to be the Church that our Lord said he would build. We are no longer to be the Church of those in political power or of those who crave that power for themselves. We give, as our Lord commanded, to the emperor what is the emperor’s, that is, the respect and the revenue which is his due. To God, however, we give what is God’s, that is, everything we have and everything we are for he has given us everything he is.

‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3). Now is the time for us to die to the world and to ourselves, and to begin to live for him.


The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: The Parable of John and Jane

This is a parable I have written to go with this week's sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Parable of John and Jane

John and Jane weren't the most likely of couples. They got together after Jane helped John get through a crisis in his life, and they stayed together after it. There were always tensions between them, but somehow they managed to get over them. John was not an easy person, but Jane seemed to bring out the best in him. It seemed that there was nothing he couldn't do with Jane by his side guiding him and encouraging him.

John's influence on Jane was not nearly so positive. John valued power and success. And it was largely to please him that Jane pursued and did well in a career that made money and won her respect. She was never truly happy, however, and, despite her outward achievements, at times she didn't feel she was being the person she truly was inside.

After a while together, the strain got too much for Jane and she had a breakdown. John and Jane got through it, but something had changed in their relationship. John still looked to Jane for support, but John became increasingly the dominant partner and Jane more and more dependent upon him.

Then John got bored with Jane. He felt she was holding him back. Things he had once liked about her, he no longer liked. There was so much more he could do without her. He resented her constantly nagging at him and telling him what to do. Their relationship didn't come to a sudden end, but it was clear to those who knew them that something had changed and that John was spending less and less time with Jane.
Jane sensed John's increasing lack of interest in her, which only heightened her own insecurity and lack of confidence. She had been with John so long now, and had come to rely on him. She was used to the life they had together. She simply didn't know how to live without him.

So she did all she could to win him back. She pleaded with him. She changed her appearance to make herself look like the other women John was taking an interest in. She spent more and more time seeking to help John in his life to the neglect of her own life and work. Staying with John and keeping John in her life was now her main goal.

John realized that Jane could still be useful to him. After all, he was able largely to do what he wanted. If Jane was happy to give him the freedom to live as he liked and was willing to fit in with his plans, then why should he care? He had to give her the odd present to keep her happy and spend time with her now and again, but this was a small price to pay. And he could always just get rid of her if she became too big a nuisance.

Meanwhile, Jane's friends, who loved her deeply, became seriously anxious about her. They could hardly recognize her any more. They pleaded with her to end her relationship with John. To be the person she really was, but it was as if Jane had forgotten who that person was.

Her friends reluctantly came to believe that it was going to take something terrible to happen to bring the relationship to an end. They noticed that John was getting more and more impatient with Jane and feared that it wouldn't be too long before that 'something' happened.

But how was Jane going to cope when it did?

The Parable of John and Jane (explained)

The story of John and Jane is an all too familiar one and the chances are we all know of people who are, or who have been, in similar relationships.

There is some value in going over the past and looking at the history of the relationship and how things got to how they have, but the pressing issue for Jane is what happens now. As the saying goes: 'it is what it is'.

Many people, normally women, find themselves in abusive relationships, but just can't bring themselves either to accept the relationship is at an end or to end it before it destroys them completely. They would rather put up with the abuse than end a relationship that they have so much invested in. And if they are in love with the abuser or even derive material benefit from being with him, it is so much harder.
It's easy to see all this when you are on the outside looking in. And all too easy to give advice, which we, if we were in the same position, would find hard to take ourselves.

This doesn't, however, alter the fact that Jane needs to end the relationship and begin the long, slow journey of finding both healing and her true self.

It would, of course, be better if Jane came to realize that for herself and took the painful and necessary steps needed to free her from the relationship. Tragically, that is not often what happens. More often, it takes 'something', and usually the 'something terrible' that Jane's friends fear, to be the catalyst for change.

The good news, as many have found, is that once the break has taken place there is a sense of liberation and peace. It doesn't mean, however, that Jane will find the future easy. Her freedom will come at a price. She will not have the security that her relationship with John, for all its abuse, gives her. Materially, she will probably be worse off. There will be an inevitable change in her relationships with people who knew her as part of a couple. The loss will take some considerable time to adjust to and building a new life for herself free from John is going to take time.

But the hope is that Jane will find discovering her real identity and purpose in life both exciting and fulfilling. With love and support, Jane will come to see that she has much to give. Above all, hopefully, she will see she is beautiful, intelligent, and of value.

And, looking back - that is, if she has the time in her new life to look back - she will realize that she didn't need John after all. The question of the relationship between the World and the Church, both what it is and what it should be, is a difficult one.

All are pretty much agreed that it has been changing for some time and that the relationship that once existed, exists no longer. But given that the relationship has changed, and given the way that it has changed, what should the relationship be now?

All can probably agree with these comments about John and Jane's relationship. They are ones that I think most people would agree with. Agree, that is, when they are about an abusive human relationship between two individuals. But what when the relationship is between communal or social groups? For example, between society and the Church?

If the relationship in which the Church now finds itself with secular society were a relationship between a man and a woman, we would know exactly what needed to happen. It is only because we, the Church, have become addicted to the abuse in the way many abused victims become addicted and subjugated that we can't see what is staring us in the face.

It is frightening and challenging to go back to the Story itself, and then to the comments on it, and read them both simply changing the name 'John' to the 'World' and 'Jane' to the 'Church'.

If you have the time, I think you will at least find it an interesting exercise!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of a talk I have written for this week, the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.  I am working on making my talks and sermons available as a podcast.  This is a work in progress, but the link to the first two is here:

I will continue to make the transcripts available here!

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

The Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:1-14

The Gospel reading for this week is a particularly challenging one. It is a parable in two parts. The first challenge is simply to understand what Jesus meant when he first told this parable. Understandably, we want to know what it means for us, but, when Jesus told a parable, he had in mind people and situations at the time he was telling it. St Matthew tells us specifically which people our Lord had in mind with this parable. The parable is told to the ‘chief priests and Pharisees’ (Matthew 21:45). This helps to explain the first part, at least, of the parable.

A King has invited people to a wedding banquet for his Son. The time for the banquet has arrived, and the King tells his slaves to go out and tell everyone who has been invited that it is now going to take place. Being invited to such a grand banquet is a great honour. It would be today; it most certainly was then.

Strangely, however, those who have been invited can’t be bothered to go. The King sends other slaves to ask those invited to come. Still they will not. That’s bad enough, but, worse still, some not only don’t want to go, they don’t want to hear about it, and kill the messengers. The King, not unsurprisingly, is furious and sends the army to kill those who had murdered his slaves and to burn their city.

The wedding, however, is still to go ahead. So, the King sends his slaves out again. This time, they are to invite anyone they can find whoever they are, good or bad. The slaves do as they are told and gather ‘all whom they found’. Thanks to their efforts, the banqueting hall is filled with guests.

This is a powerful message, but all very straightforward when it comes to understanding what it means. Israel had been invited to God’s messianic banquet. This was a banquet spoken about by the prophets. It is described in our first reading this week in chapter 25 of Isaiah. Most of the people of Israel, however, are indifferent, but some, such as the chief priests and pharisees whom our Lord tells this story to, go further, and kill the prophets sent by God. The burning of the city is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in AD70 and which Jesus will speak about more later in chapter 24 of the Gospel.

The people of Israel had been the intended guests at God’s heavenly banquet, now those not originally invited will be invited to take their place. This refers to the Gentiles. The Gospel of Matthew concludes with our Lord sending his disciples out to call people whoever they are from every nation just as the King does in the parable. Jesus’ last words in the Gospel before his ascension are:

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …’ (Matthew 28:19)

In fact, as we have seen in our series on St Paul’s letter to the Romans, this, in fact, is not quite the end of things. God still has some surprises in store. The people originally invited will get another chance. ‘All Israel’ will one day be saved (Romans 11:26). Until then, we Gentiles are the chief beneficiaries of Israel’s disobedience.

What, however, is not quite so straightforward when trying to understand the parable, is what the second part of the parable means.

After the King’s slaves have gathered everyone they have found into the wedding hall, the King comes in to see his guests and notices one of the guests not wearing a ‘wedding robe’. The King asks him how he managed to get in when he is not dressed properly. He is silent. He has no explanation. Given that all the guests were made to come at such short notice, that they were there at all you would expect to be cause for some celebration! After all, when would they have had time to get dressed?

This has led some commentators to suggest that what we have here is another parable that was originally separate from the one in the first part, but which has been added on to it. If that’s the case, Matthew has not done a very good job of either making that clear or of blending it in. Others have suggested that at weddings at the time, the host of the wedding would provide proper clothing for the guests to wear and that this particular guest had refused to wear it. That would be a great explanation, if that was, in fact, the practice at the time, but there is little evidence that it was!

Whatever the explanation, there is a guest not dressed as the King expected him to be and, as a consequence, he suffers arguably a greater punishment than those guests who were originally invited and who killed the King’s messengers. It is one thing to kill the King’s messengers, another entirely, apparently, not to wear the right clothes! The badly dressed guest is thrown into ‘outer darkness’ where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. His punishment will last a long time!

Now these are stories, so we have to be careful about interpreting them over literally. But they are stories designed to make a point. They do have a meaning. Just as the slaves gathering everyone in, for example, refers to the Gentile mission, so too the punishments in both parts refer to something, as especially does the guest who is not dressed as the King expects. That the badly dressed guest symbolizes something is clear; quite what that is, however, is not.

Jesus concludes the parable with a saying that is meant to sum up its meaning. The trouble is that rather than making its meaning clearer, it clouds it even further. Jesus says:

‘For many are called, but few are chosen.’ (Matthew 22:14)

I can’t help finding a bit amusing the lengths people go to in order to try to explain that when Jesus uses the word ‘chosen’, he doesn’t mean that God chooses some and not others. Most of the commentators are at pains to explain that the ‘chosen’ are those who have themselves willingly chosen to respond to the invitation.

Presumably then, if we apply the same sort of reasoning, when Jesus, in John’s Gospel, says to his disciples, ‘you did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15:16), what Jesus is actually saying is, ‘I did not choose you, you chose me’!

When will we accept that our salvation comes from God and not from ourselves? We are so desperate to hold on to some role for ourselves that we focus on ourselves and our response rather than on God and his grace in reaching out to us in Christ. We have to allow God to be God. It was the King who issued the original invitation to the guests, the King who sent his messengers when the banquet was ready, the King who orders the murder of those originally invited and the burning of their city, and the King who sent his slaves to get replacement guests. It is also the King who has the badly dressed man thrown out.

The only freedom exercised by people in the parable is by the guests who refuse to go to the banquet, by those who murdered the messengers, and, then, by the one who turns up not dressed properly.

Now clearly, we cannot press all the details in the story to describe how God works, but if the story teaches anything, it is that God is in the driving seat. Yes, of course, we have a role to play, but the initiative lies with God both in issuing the invitation in the first place and then deciding how to judge our response.

So, what about our response?

For those to whom the parable was first told and to whom its message was directed, their response had catastrophic consequences. It resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the passing over of Israel - for a time at least.

From this and the subsequent gathering of replacement guests, we learn that we live now in a time when God wants to gather people regardless of their background into his Kingdom. We too can be part of the Kingdom of God. But what of the badly dressed man?

There have been all sorts of suggestions as to what this means. Most of the suggestions focus on the fact that he is not wearing a ‘wedding robe’ and on what the wedding robe symbolizes. The suggestions include that it represents repentance, faith, or good works. While it is true as Jesus elsewhere makes clear that we will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom with out repentance, faith, and good works, the parable itself does not make it clear that this is what Jesus means here.

The idea that the wedding robe refers to all three can be had from the previous parable in chapter 21

A more fruitful approach is to ask not what the lack of a wedding robe represents, but what the man without a wedding robe himself represents. I would suggest that he represents all those who think they can enter the Kingdom of God on their own terms. This, then, does indeed include those who think they can enter God’s Kingdom without repentance, faith, and good works, but, more fundamentally, he represents those who think they can be saved on their own account; that they are perfectly OK just as they are.

This is what St Paul describes as having ‘confidence in the flesh’ (Philippians 3:4). It is as if the man is saying, ‘I get to choose what I wear, there is no dress code that I have to follow. I am fine dressed as I am.’ He represents both those proud of their own ability and their achievements and those who think they don’t need to do anything. They have complete confidence in themselves.

In the letter to the Philippians, St Paul describes how before coming to know Christ, he saw himself as blameless. Now, he describes himself as:

‘… not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.’ (Philippians 3:9)

If we rely on ourselves, we are going to be in for a nasty surprise. The badly dressed man was speechless when questioned by the King. We too are not used to being told what we should wear. We get to decide, or so we think, what is right and wrong, what we should or should not do. But that’s not how it works. We follow the dress code of the restaurant or we don’t get to enjoy the meal. We enter in the way the King says or we too get thrown out in the way the badly dressed man was.

Now, even as I say this, I know that all too few will take it seriously. We are so used to thinking that we are in control of our own destiny and that, in any case, God, if there is a God, couldn’t possibly be the sort of God who would reject anyone whatever the cause.

However, here’s the thing: the Bible is clear that one day ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:10). God will decide whether we get to stay or are made to go.

So, before that happens, let us take God’s invitation seriously and seek to enter his presence, his way, while we still have time.

Our Lord said:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

May we be amongst the few who do.


Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 3:4-14

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, St Paul has referred so far to both the joy the Philippians bring him and to the joy he personally experiences in the Lord, despite his imprisonment and suffering for the Gospel. As we have seen previously, joy is one of the key themes in Philippians. Now having urged them to stop thinking too highly of themselves, St Paul begins chapter three by telling them to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. Or, to put it another way, to have ‘joy in the Lord’. The obvious question, then, is, ‘What is joy?’

The problem is that ‘joy’, in English, is often seen as synonymous with happiness. And the dictionaries often define it this way. Oxford, for example, offers: ‘A feeling of great pleasure and happiness’. The Oxford definition identifies another issue, that is, thinking of ‘joy’ as an emotion. Happiness and feelings are highly subjective and circumstantial. They are emotions that can be induced or suppressed by a whole variety of stimulants.

When St Paul speaks of his joy and tells believers to have it, he is not thinking primarily in these terms. Rather ‘joy in the Lord’ is something that transcends feelings and circumstances. This is why St Paul can still have joy and rejoice even when he is suffering and things are not going well. Joy, for St Paul, is an inner peace, confidence, and security that comes from a relationship with God in Christ. A relationship so important and central to his life that nothing else matters in comparison.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when St Paul feels happy being a believer. Of course, there are. But he can have joy even when he doesn’t feel happy and, indeed, when he feels anything but. Joy is about a sense of well-being that comes from knowing who we belong to, and that nothing and no-one can take it away. It is based not on our ability to feel, but on the love of God for us. As St Paul explains to the Roman believers, nothing in all creation can separate us from this love of God for us ‘in Christ Jesus our Lord’(Romans 8:38-39).

St Paul begins this part of the letter by telling the Philippian believers to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. He concludes it by telling them:

‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.’ (Philippian 4:1)

Nehemiah in the Old Testament said: the ‘joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10). Joy is the sense of security that comes from the knowledge that God loves us unconditionally. It gives us the strength us to face what happens to us in this world with confidence and without fear. It enables us to tackle the difficult problems that inevitably come our way and the pain that we frequently experience because of them. Our Lord said:

‘In the world you will have trouble; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33)

It is as we look to the Lord for meaning and purpose in life that we discover the resources we need to stand firm and live lives of obedience in this world.

In between telling them to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ and to ‘stand firm’ in the Lord, St Paul has some important things to say to help them to do just this. What he writes immediately after telling them to rejoice in the Lord, however, comes as a bit of a surprise. He writes:

‘Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!’ (Philippians 3:2)

St Paul is referring here to people in the Church who profoundly disagreed with St Paul’s understanding and explanation of the Gospel. There was much in which they were in agreement with St Paul. Like St Paul, they too believed in Jesus. They would have agreed enthusiastically with the famous passage in Philippians chapter two about our Lord taking the ‘form of a slave’ and becoming ‘obedient unto death’. They too would have preached that Christ had been raised from the dead and exalted by God. This amazing passage about our Lord is often described as a hymn that St Paul is quoting. Those St Paul is warning the Philippian believers to beware of may originally even have been from among those who wrote it!

So, what was the problem? The problem was that those St Paul warns against thought that having faith in Christ and being obedient to him also meant keeping God’s Law. That, you might think, is not an unreasonable argument. Many Gentiles who had become believers through St Paul’s ministry certainly thought it was a reasonable argument, and were willing to accept it, often enthusiastically. These ‘dogs’ as St Paul describes them felt that St Paul was leaving stuff out of his presentation of the Gospel that should be in it. And they followed him around like dogs telling people in his Churches that they should not only have faith in Christ, but keep God’s Law as well. They worked hard to persuade the believers of the truth of their understanding of the Gospel.

St Paul doesn’t dispute their conscientiousness; they do indeed work hard, but, in his mind, they are ‘evil workers’. And what they say is dangerous, so dangerous that St Paul gives this strong warning: ‘Beware!’ He writes this, he tells them, as a ‘safeguard’, like a warning sign erected when there is danger of some sort.

‘Evil workers’ for telling people to keep God’s Law? How can obeying God’s Law threaten the Philippian believers in any way? St Paul explains the answer to this question more fully in his letter to the Roman believers. [It just so happens that I have been going through Romans in the past few weeks and, if you are interested, the sermons are still all available on YouTube!] In his letter to the Roman believers, St Paul gives a detailed explanation and answer. Here, he answers the question by describing his own experience.

This is a very important passage as it is one of the few where St Paul gives us some autobiographical details. What St Paul tells us about himself fits well with what we know of him from the Book of Acts. He was born a Jew and circumcised as a baby, as all male Jews are. He could trace his ancestry back to an exclusive tribe of Israel, and he spoke Hebrew, the original language of the Jewish people. All this was decided for him by his parents, but he had, personally, fully and consciously embraced it. He was a Pharisee, a sect within Judaism committed to keeping God’s Law just as the ‘dogs’ were. In fact, he was blameless in keeping it. As to zeal, he was a persecutor of the Church. What he means by this is that his commitment to God’s Law was such that he was prepared to use violence against anyone whom he saw as threatening it.

While we may agree that St Paul got it wrong in persecuting the Church, what was wrong, we may ask, with being circumcised as all God’s people, if they were men, including our Lord, had been in the past? What was wrong with speaking the language of the Scriptures and keeping God’s Law? Put like this, it is hard to see what was wrong. And that is how the ‘dogs’ did put it to believers in St Paul’s Churches. And many of believers didn’t see what was wrong with it, which is why St Paul is so worried.

What is so wrong with it, St Paul explains from his own experience, is that it is all about putting ‘confidence in the flesh’. St Paul knew that what the ‘dogs’ were asking was for believers to believe in themselves. St Paul recites his autobiography not because he wants to tell the Philippian believers about himself, but to show that his opposition to the ‘dogs’ isn’t out jealousy because he didn’t have what they had. He had everything they had and more.

Sometimes, we dismiss people and their achievements because secretly we are jealous that they have had more privileges and have achieved more than we have. St Paul wants to make plain that this is not the case with him and his opponents. When it came to the things that his opponents valued, he had more of them than they did.

If anyone could be proud of themselves and their achievements, it was St Paul. Instead, he writes, not only has he lost all he had, he has lost it willingly, and he has come to regard everything he has lost as rubbish. He describes what has led to such a dramatic re-evaluation of his life as the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). His goal in life now is all about Christ and not about himself. He writes:

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11)

This sort of language is alien to us. The sentiment it expresses sounds extreme. Perhaps it is appropriate for those few who are particularly holy or those who have nothing else to worry about in life, but for the rest of us, it all sounds very remote and unrealistic. And yet, St Paul tells the Philippian believers:

‘Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.’ (Philippians 3:17)

It may seem remote and unrealistic, but St Paul writes not for few, but for all believers to encourage us to have the same goals and aims in life as he does. For St Paul, ‘rejoicing in the Lord’, as he urges us to do, means prioritizing our relationship with the Lord; and prioritizing our relationship with the Lord means letting go of anything that jeopardizes it or is incompatible with it. It also means being aware of anyone who threatens it.

When it comes to what the ‘dogs’ were advocating, we have, today, rejected their demands and followed St Paul. We don’t think men should be circumcised; we don’t only eat food that is kosher; we don’t follow many of the rules and regulations of God’s Law in the Scriptures. We don’t even keep the ten commandments; I, for one, was certainly working yesterday on the sabbath.

So, because of this, we might be tempted to think that how St Paul tells us to live is not only unrealistic, but that what he warns against is of little relevance to us as we are no longer in danger of doing what the dogs demanded. His warning is, however, highly relevant.

The problem with what the dogs were advocating then and with what their present day successors are advocating now is that they put their ‘confidence in the flesh’, that is in themselves, and they want us to do so too.

For those in the Church in St Paul’s day, ‘confidence in the flesh’ took the form of pride in their possession of God’s law and in their own ability to keep it. They were proud of the identity that being Jews and keeping God’s Law gave them. They believed in God; they believed also in themselves.

So too in the Church today. We believe in God - most of the time; we believe also in ourselves. We want to see ourselves as fundamentally good people. We are proud of our background; of our education and achievements; of our status in society. Increasingly, we are proud of our various individual and social identities. We are increasingly encouraged to take pride in who we are and celebrate the person we are, whoever and whatever that may be. Going to Church, in many cases, has become as much about celebrating our individual identities as it has about worshipping God.

St Paul tells us to ‘rejoice in the Lord’. This is the precise opposite to rejoicing in ourselves. We rejoice in who the Lord is and what he has done for us despite who we are and what we have done. Having become his followers, we rejoice in him not in our ethnic, racial, or sexual identity. Instead, we count these as loss.

We rejoice in the Lord and seek to know him and his power in our life conforming us to his death as we learn to place no confidence in ourselves and our abilities. We don’t follow our dreams; we follow Christ, and it is him and our relationship with him that gives our life meaning.

St Paul writes in Galatians:

‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:27-28)

When we hear this today, we hear it as telling us that we are all equal and that we are not to allow racial, social, and gender and sexuality barriers to divide people. What St Paul is saying is far more radical and fundamental than that. He is talking about what it means to ‘have put on Christ’. It means that our identity now lies in Christ and not in our racial background, social status, gender or sexual orientation. It is being ‘in Christ’, and being sons and daughters of God as a consequence, that defines us and who we are. Our union with Christ unites us with those who share an identity in Christ. It is an identity that depends solely on Christ and who he is and what he has done, not on who we are and what we have done.

We have just had National Day. A day that, for obvious reasons has become controversial. Church members are urged to take sides: to support the motherland as good patriots or to fight for democracy as if our life depended on it. Ultimately, as followers of Christ we are to do neither. We obey the authorities for that is what the Bible tells us to do, but we do so because we know there is a higher authority to which all in authority must bend the knee. We don’t seek freedom in political systems; our freedom is in Christ.

St Paul writes of his opponents:

‘… their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:19-20)

St Paul’s opponents were too focused on themselves. This is why St Paul describes them as ‘enemies of the Cross of Christ’. The Cross of Christ means death to self not confidence in our-self. Not only that, in their self-centredness, those St Paul warns against, were also too concerned with this world. Their worldview was limited. Our citizenship, the City we belong to as believers, is in heaven. This is why St Paul urges the Colossian believers:

‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.’ (Colossians 3:2)

Even though we are ‘expecting a Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ’ from heaven in the future, even now in the present we can have a relationship with him here on earth. Our relationship with him puts everything into perspective, it defines who we are, and it gives meaning to our lives.

Central to being a follower of Christ is this relationship with Christ: not what we believe, not what we do, not where we worship. It’s not believing, behaving, or belonging that matters, but knowing, not knowing as in what we know, but knowing in the sense of whom we know: I want to know him and knowing him I rejoice in him and in him alone.

Let us pray:

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.