Monday, November 30, 2020

Advent Sunday

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, Advent Sunday.

Advent Sunday

Reading: Mark 13:24-37

In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 13, St Mark brings his account of Jesus’ public ministry to a conclusion. It is also Jesus’ own conclusion to his ministry to his people, Israel. And what a conclusion! Jesus has been teaching in the Temple, and now he leaves the Temple for the final time with his disciples. As they go, the disciples comment on how large the stones and the buildings are. They were not exaggerating. The stones that were used to build the Temple were so large that even today we are not quite sure how they managed to get them into place. Some of them measured over forty feet in length and weighed over 500 tons. (By way of comparison, the largest stone of the Egyptian pyramids, for example, weighs 11 tons.)

The Temple was in every way a magnificent and beautiful building. But greater than any architectural importance it may have had was its spiritual significance. This was the place where heaven and earth came together and where God met with his people. Here the sacrifices were offered and here the festivals were celebrated. It is very hard for us to understand and feel how much it meant for the people of God. This wasn’t simply a holy place; this was the holy place; this was the house of God.

So, when Jesus says that not one stone will be left on another, he is not talking about some trivial event. What he is predicting is both cataclysmic and catastrophic. It is no wonder that in the disciples’ minds it must be linked to coming of the Day of the Lord and the appearance of the Son of Man at the end of this age. The four disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, ask the obvious questions: when will it happen and how will we know it is about to happen?

Jesus, in answering, talks about all the things that are not signs that it is about to happen. All the normal events that happen in the world will continue to happen before it: wars and rumours of wars; famines and earthquakes; political upheaval; all will continue as usual. In the midst of all this confusing normality, false teachers and prophets will appear who will themselves seem and sound very believable and normal.

For Jesus’ disciples, however, life will be anything but normal. They can expect to be hated, betrayed, arrested, put on trial, beaten, and killed. It is only those who endure all these things to their bitter end who will be saved. The Gospel must be preached to ‘all nations’, and they must do it, whatever the cost to them personally. They may be beaten and killed, but according to St Luke, Jesus promises that not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21:18).

Then it will happen. But what will happen? We think that what will happen is that Jesus will come again. It is at this point, then, that we need to remind ourselves of the question. We forget that the question Jesus is answering is when the Temple will be destroyed. It is this that Jesus is focused on in chapter 13. This is why he says that those in Judea must flea to the mountains (Mark 13:14); they need to get away from Jerusalem, the scene of the disaster.

Jesus is not in the first place in chapter 13 (and the accounts in the other Gospels) describing the end of the world, but the end of a city. It is, however, also the end of a world. Naturally enough, we want to know about the end of our world, but Jesus is talking about the end of his world and the world of his disciples. We don’t appreciate the importance and significance of this. It is only after he has described it that Jesus moves on briefly to the coming of the Son of Man and the end of our world and of the present age.

First, his world comes to an end, then secondly, the world itself as we know it comes to an end. For us living now, the first, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, has happened, but not the second. The first happened in AD70, 1,950 years ago. So, given that there is so much distance between them, why does Jesus talk about them here in the same breath. Because after the destruction of the Temple, there is nothing else significant, historically, to talk about until the end of the world. Our Lord says this of the destruction of Jerusalem:

‘For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be.’ (Mark 13:19)

All other events pale into insignificance in comparison to this terrible event. Yes, there will continue to be wars and rumours of wars. Nation shall continue to rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines, and all sorts of other disasters both natural and man-made. And for those caught up in them and affected by them, they will be important, but, historically, they are of little significance after what happened in AD70. It’s like looking at a school boy fight in the playground when talking about the great battles in history.

After the fall of Jerusalem, everything else is ‘birth pangs’. They, of course, have significance for those affected by them. They are significant in what they point forward to, but not of much significance in and of themselves. They do not change anything. The fall of Jerusalem, however, changed everything.

In the Gospel accounts of his life, our Lord wept twice. One occasion is well-known. He wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend (John 11:35). He wept there with those who wept and wept at what death does and the pain it causes. The other occasion is less well-known; our Lord also wept over Jerusalem and the destruction that was coming on her.

The occasion was what we know as Palm Sunday. Jesus is entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. There is great joy and celebration, but for Jesus himself, however, there is not only the foreboding of knowing that his own death is approaching, there is the knowledge that the city he is now entering in triumph will, within a generation, be utterly destroyed because of its failure to recognize him for who he is. St Luke writes:

‘As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”’ (Luke 19:41-44)

We have all wept over the death of a loved one. We weep no matter how much faith we may have or how strongly we believe we will see them again. Regardless of our hope for the future, we still weep. Death is never our friend. The destruction of Jerusalem is on the same level. But in the same way that there will be a resurrection for those who die in the faith of Christ, so too there will be a resurrection for the Jewish people and a new Jerusalem to look forward to. Jerusalem shall live again!

In case you think I am letting my imagination run away with me, remember what St Paul writes in his letter to the Church in Rome about the Jewish people:

‘For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?’ (Romans 11:15)

For now, Jerusalem has fallen. A hardness has come on the people of Israel. We live in the ‘times of the Gentiles’, as St Luke describes the time we are living in (Luke 21:24). But this time won’t go on forever. It will come to end, and one day, as St Paul tells us, ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26). For us Gentiles in the present, then, there is no room for arrogance and no place for complacency, only for gratitude and humility. ‘Note then the kindness and severity of God’, St Paul warns us Gentiles. We need only to look at Jerusalem to see God’s severity; let us pray that we may continue in his kindness.

Jesus tells his disciples all this, and tells us through them, not in order to satisfy our curiosity or to encourage us to speculate about the ‘times and seasons’, but to warn us. We are to ‘be alert’, Jesus says, in verses 23 and 33. We are to ‘keep awake’, he says in verses 35 and 37. We do not know when our Lord will come. But we do know that he will come, and he expects us to be prepared for his coming.

St Paul writes in Romans:

‘Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.’ (Romans 13:11-12)

Not unreasonably, like the disciples, we want to know when the Day will come, and we want to know what signs we should be looking out for that show it is coming. Many believers become fascinated by the subject of our Lords’ return, and it has led to endless speculative systems and timetables that claim to show in what order it will all take place.

When I first became a believer, I had a study Bible that interpreted everything in the Bible according to how the authors believed the second coming would take place. You may have heard of the ‘Left Behind’ series, which takes a similar approach.

These approaches, more often than not, owe more to the imagination than they do to revelation. Sincere believers disagree over the details of our Lord’s return. This is because we are given so few details. The reason we are given so few details is because the details are not to be our concern. St Paul, echoing our Lord’s words, tells us what is to be our concern. We are to be awake; we are to be ready.

Being ready doesn’t mean having carefully worked out systems and timetables of events leading up to our Lord’s coming; it means living the way God wants us to live until our Lord comes. It refers to our priorities, values, and attitudes, and how we are living them out in our daily lives.

St Paul continues in the passage I have just read to explain what being ‘awake’ means.  He writes:

‘So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Romans 13:13-14)

‘Walking properly’ means not indulging ourselves in such things as ‘orgies and drunkenness’; it means not engaging in sexual immorality. Most of us can go along with this, but ‘walking properly’, St Paul tells us, also means not quarrelling and not being jealous. It means making no provision for the self. More than that, it means putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.

‘Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ’ itself involves more than seeking to keep our Lord’s teaching, although that would be a start. It is rather a command to be like our Lord in his character. We are to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We are to put up with one another; forgive one another; love one another. And in the midst of the chaos and darkness of this world, we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and be thankful. (see Colossians 3:12-15).

To be dressed and ready for our Lord’s return means being clothed with him by making him the centre of our lives and the role model for them.

You have probably heard the phrase, ‘What would Jesus do?’ It is a question that believers are sometimes encouraged to ask themselves when confronted with a difficult situation. This Advent Sunday, we are encouraged to ask another question. What would we do if we knew Jesus was about to return at any moment? What difference would it make to how we think and live?

This is why Jesus closes his answer to his disciples questions with words specifically directed to all who will follow him:

‘And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:37)

The Advent Collect: 

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Feast of Christ the King

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Feast of Christ the King.

The Feast of Christ the King

Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. This is the Sunday that closes the Church’s year, and it seeks to do so on a high note. Over the Church’s year, we have thought about the major events in the life of our Lord and what they mean for us. We have looked at his teaching and how he wants us to live as his followers. Now we end the year by thinking of him as the Lord and Ruler of all. As our reading this morning puts it, Christ is seated at the right hand of God:

‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)

You may remember that St Paul writes in similar terms in his letter to the Church at Philippi. The writers of the New Testament all share a common belief that God is in control and that Christ is ruling over all things.

This shared belief, however, causes problems for believers today. We are, after all, living at the moment through a pandemic that has brought normal life to a halt and killed thousands of people. It is wrecking economies and destroying people’s livelihoods. This may be a once in a lifetime experience, a headline event which grabs our attention, but it brings into focus the suffering that routinely characterizes day to day life in this world. The pandemic may be unusual, but there is nothing unusual about evil in our world. Since Christ’s death and resurrection, people have been dying in wars and disasters, suffering from pain and sickness, and watching wrongdoing and wickedness go unchecked.

It is not even as though we believers can claim that Christ is the King who rules over us his people, even if he doesn’t rule over those outside the Church. It is true that the Church has had some great moments in its history, and there have indeed been some outstanding saints whose lives have borne witness to their faith. But there have also been some dreadful moments too, and there have been some really awful people at the highest levels of the Church.

The Church has argued, divided, conspired, and committed terrible acts all of which are only too well-known. We have not demonstrated the love of Christ in our lives and in the world, but have instead sided with the powerful against the weak and with the rich against the poor. This year, the issue of racial equality has come to the fore not least with the black lives matter movement. The movement has had no difficulty in demonstrating that the Church in the past has supported slavery, injustice, and oppression. We, in the Church, may, for our part, highlight the work of those believers who fought for freedom, justice, and equality, but often they were the minority, and they were frequently resisted forcefully by many in the Church.

Only recently, on November 10, a report was published by the Roman Catholic Church into the McCarrick scandal in which a prominent Archbishop and Cardinal was guilty of abuse on a frightening scale. Worse still, although people in the Church’s hierarchy knew about what was going on, they did nothing. Indeed, McCarrick continued to be promoted in the Church. And McCarrick, as we know, was by no means alone in being an abuser.

And, in case we in the Anglican Church get complacent and think such abuse is confined to Roman Catholics, another recent report found that the same sort of abuse has been going on in the Anglican Church. A further report published last month (on October 22) found that ‘appalling’ acts of sexual abuse against vulnerable children and young people were committed by one Bishop over a period of more than 15 years.

These are just recent, albeit terrible, examples of how we in the Church have failed to live as followers of Christ. They are though by no means isolated incidents.

Now we may seek to explain all this by appealing to the reality and power of sin. The Church itself, after all, is made up of weak, fallible, sinful people. We are all all too human. Our humanity does not excuse us but, we argue, it explains how such evil can happen, even in the Church. And what is true of the Church, in particular, is true of the world, in general: wars, violence, exploitation, and injustice are wrought, not by God but by man - and often, it mostly is by man.

All this is true - to an extent. But where, then, does it leave us this morning? If evil continues seemingly unhindered, even in the Church, because of our sin, what does it mean for us to say that Christ is King and that God is in control? If this is God being in control, it doesn’t much feel like it. How, when the world is the way it is, can we say and sing that the Lord is King and that he rules over all? Some King; some rule!

The question, then, is this: did the New Testament writers allow their rhetoric to run away with them? And have we allowed ourselves to be taken in by it? Isn’t the reality so different to the rhetoric that the rhetoric is ultimately meaningless? We simply can’t dodge the question by singing hymns and repeating slogans about God being in charge.

Well, first of all, we need to remember that the New Testament writers were not isolated from reality. They knew only too well what evil was like. Many had lost friends and relatives because of their faith in Christ. St Paul himself is in prison for his faith as he writes the letter our reading is from this morning. He writes in his letters of the suffering he personally has had to endure for his faith in Christ. He describes himself as having had to fight with ‘wild animals in Ephesus’ (1 Corinthians 15:32) and of being ‘utterly, unbearably crushed’ while there (2 Corinthians 1:8). In the letter to the Church at Philippi, he also writes as a prisoner facing the possibility of his death. He was eventually to be executed in Rome when Nero was the emperor. And St Paul was by no means the only believer Nero had killed. Many others were tortured and murdered in the most barbaric of ways.

Some of the greatest passages in the New Testament celebrating the power and rule of Christ are in the book of Revelation. And yet the book itself was written to Churches in the same region that St Paul writes to in the letter our reading is from this week. These believers were themselves experiencing violent opposition and death for their faith. St John, who wrote the book of Revelation, is himself a prisoner on the island of Patmos for his faith in Christ when he writes and, in the book, he warns of the terrible suffering and pain that is still to come.

And yet, despite all this, St Paul, St John, and the other New Testament writers still absolutely insist that God is in control and that all power and authority belongs to Christ. Are they mad?

Make no mistake, the vast majority of people in Ephesus and the surrounding region that both St Paul and St John wrote to certainly thought that they were. They didn’t believe the apostles’ preaching because they thought it just foolishness. How could anyone believe that someone who had himself been crucified and crushed by the power of Rome was now the ruler of all? It was just madness even to think it.

So, are we also mad to believe in Christ? Are we deluded fools? Have we believed a lie?

In the letter to the Church in Ephesus, after his customary style of greeting, St Paul blesses God for all he has done for those who are believers. This prayer is grammatically a single sentence 202 words long. It’s a long sentence, but in this one sentence St Paul manages to sum up the whole of our faith.

You know how often, if someone sends you a file attachment, it will come in a compressed format and then needs to be extracted when it is downloaded. This sentence is St Paul compressing all that God has done for us into a short file. The trouble is to extract it, that is, to unpack it, would certainly take up more space than we have available this morning!

The important thing to note is that St Paul tells us that God has a plan, and, while it might not seem like it, the plan is on track. God is the one, St Paul writes, ‘who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). The plan quite simply is to ‘unite all things’ in heaven and on earth in Christ. Christ is at the very heart of God’s plan for all creation, seen and unseen.

So where do we believers fit in? Here St Paul writes something that really is hard to get our minds around. He tells us that God ‘chose us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4). You and I being here this morning is no accident. Some of you may have watched the video talk I posted this week by Dr Mary Healy. She talks about how God is ‘orchestrating’ everything. This is what St Paul means when he writes about God ‘working all things ‘according to the counsel of his will’.

A conductor of an orchestra brings all the different instruments together to perform the music in front of him. He makes sure they all play their part - strings, woodwind, brass, percussion - the conductor brings them all in at exactly the right moment.

This is exactly what God is doing: in the protests in Hong Kong, with Trump and Biden in America, with the pandemic throughout the world, and in our own individual lives and stories. All these are playing a part in bringing about God’s plan for his creation.

We can’t always see the performance and often we fail to understand what is going on and this is for two reasons. First of all, because we are looking in the wrong place. We fail to see that the presidents, prime ministers, and chief executives of this world aren’t the stars of the show, they are just part of the cast of extras. They have a role to play, but the story is not about them - much as they would like it to be and often think that it is.

The Ephesian believers must have thought the story was all about Rome and Caesar. There were statues to the emperor everywhere in Ephesus and throughout Asia to remind them of his power. There were even temples for them to go to so they could worship his power. But, in the plan and purposes of God, the Ephesian believers weren’t there to serve the emperor, the emperor was there to serve them and the Gospel. And because God is in control, even when the emperors did their worse, it only served to further the plan and purposes of God.

It doesn’t look like God is in control when we look at the world around us. It doesn’t look like God is in control when we look at our own lives. This is because we have a problem with our sight and it is why St Paul prays in our reading that the eyes of our hearts may be ‘enlightened’ (Ephesians 1:18).

One of my favourite Old Testament stories is when the prophet Elisha and his servant Gehazi find themselves surrounded by the army of the King of Aram who is seeking to capture Elisha. Not unreasonably Gehazi panics, ‘What shall we do?’, he asks. Elisha’s reply is:

‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ (2 Kings 6:16)

Elisha then prays that God will open his servant’s eyes. God does so and Gehazi sees the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha.

When we look around us it can be discouraging and depressing. It can even be frightening. It can feel as if we are very small and insignificant. When I have recorded the services over the past few months when we weren’t allowed to have public gatherings, at first it looked like the Church was empty, but in fact it was full; every seat was occupied; for we worship, not just with each other, but with ‘angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. We are never alone; we are never outnumbered: ‘there are more with us than there are with them’.

And when we gather in the name of Christ, the place on earth to be is here for Christ is here with us, and, more than that, he offers himself to us to give us the strength we need to serve him and to keep going when we feel weak and like giving up.

But secondly, another reason we can’t see that God is in control is that we are not looking at things from the right place. St Paul writes of God’s great power:

‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places …’ (Ephesians 1:20)

Viewed from the ‘heavenly places’, where Christ is sitting, things look very different to how they look from where we are sitting. But, we reply, that’s all very well, but we can’t see things from where Christ is sitting. And that’s our problem.

In chapter 2 of the letter, St Paul writes that God has ‘raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:6).

If you are sitting behind a pillar in Christ Church, no matter how good your sight is you won’t see me, you need to move seats. We need to sit where we can see. The writer to the Hebrews tells us:

‘At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus.’ (Hebrews 2:8-9)

When we look at things from where Christ is sitting, while we will not yet see everything subject to him, we will see how God is working his purpose out and how God is bringing his symphony of creation to a dramatic conclusion.

But how can we be sure?

St Paul tells us that we have been ‘sealed’ with the ‘promised Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit, whom we experience in the present, who is the guarantee of what will be ours in the future. As St Julian of Norwich put it, that despite all appearances to the contrary, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

Our Lord, before his arrest, promised his disciples that he would not leave them comfortless. He warned them that they would hear of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and that in the world they would have trouble, but they were to be of good cheer for he had overcome the world.

It is the Spirit who enables us to see what God is doing and who gives us the strength we need in the face of all the problems and difficulties we experience in this world as we await the ‘inheritance’ that is our hope.

So no, we are not mad. We are not deluded. We have not believed a lie.

We don’t yet see all things subject to him, but we do see Jesus, and one day we will see Jesus bring God’s plan for his creation to completion. We look forward with hope to this day, and we pray that God may find us faithful and ready for it when it comes.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Second Sunday before Advent

This is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Second Sunday before Advent.

The Second Sunday before Advent

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

We are fast approaching Advent! Indeed, as members of the Facebook Group will know, there was a time in the Church’s history when we would already be in it. This is reflected in our readings for today. Advent for most people has become a time of preparation for Christmas. (There are now just 39 days until Christmas!) There is nothing wrong with preparing for Christmas and the Nativity of Our Lord. But as with Lent as a time of preparation for Easter, we prepare not by anticipating the joy of celebrating the festival ahead, but by taking time for spiritual reflection.

We do this in Advent by focusing, not on our Lord’s first coming in weakness and humility as a baby in Bethlehem, but on when he will come again in power and glory as the Lord of all.

We have, in recent weeks, been considering St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. (I hope you will think about listening to the podcasts I have posted on the letter.) Today’s reading builds on what St Paul has said so far in the letter, especially in the passage immediately preceding the one for this week’s second reading.

In that passage, St Paul has answered a question that was clearly troubling the Thessalonian believers. They believed firmly in our Lord’s return, and they were looking forward to it. This was central to their faith and provided the basis for their hope. But what about those believers who died before our Lord returned? This question, as we saw last week, illustrates the huge difference between how the first believers approached their faith and how we approach ours today.

For most of us, our hope is in going to be with Christ when we die. For them, it was meeting with Christ when he returned. If your hope is centred on Christ coming again, then inevitably you are going to be worried about what happens if you die before he comes. This was a question that clearly was troubling some in the Church in Thessalonica. St Paul’s answer to this question isn’t to tell the Thessalonian believers not to worry because those who have died are safe with Christ in heaven. Instead, he tells them that, when the Lord returns, God will first raise from the dead those believers who have died so that they meet with Christ before he appears to anyone else.

For us, this immediately raises the question of what happens to those who die in the meantime before Christ comes again. St Paul’s answer to this question is that the dead are indeed already safe with Christ and, as we saw when we looked at St Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, St Paul is sure that, if he personally dies before the Lord returns, then that is where he is going to be. But that is not our hope. That is about where we go to wait for what actually is our hope. Our hope as believers looks to what will happen, not when we die, but when Christ comes again. And this is what Advent, traditionally, has been all about.

Advent, in the past, had as its theme the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. This at once creates huge problems for believers today. We only take seriously two of them: death and heaven. Far easier, then, in Advent to think about celebrating the birth of our Lord and the life he came to bring; life which begins now and which will last forever. Following on from this, we prefer to see death itself simply as a transition from life in this world to life in the next.

No matter how popular this approach may be, and you hear it expressed all the time at funerals, it isn’t the approach we find in the New Testament. As, again, we saw in our reading last week, death is neither the end nor the beginning for the believer. Death leads to a time of waiting for what we hope will be the beginning. The beginning is the time when our bodies will be raised and when we will share in the glory of God. As St John puts it:

‘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)

For this to happen, Christ must return, he must be ‘revealed’, as St John puts it, and judgement must take place. The mention of judgement makes us start to feel uncomfortable, and well it should. Judgement implies more than one possible outcome, which is where heaven and hell come in. The Bible teaches that the return of Christ will not be good news for everyone. As our Lord himself taught, not all will be saved; for ‘many are called, few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14).

If our Lord’s return is so important and crucial for all of us, believer and unbeliever alike, the obvious question is, ‘When will it happen?’ This, then, brings us specifically to the question that St Paul tries to answer in our reading. He writes:

‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:1)

I am not so sure he would say this to us! Even though the Thessalonian believers know the answer to the question of when our Lord will return, St Paul still feels it is important to remind them. The answer is, quite simply, we don’t know! The Lord will return, as he himself put it, ‘like a thief in the night’ (Matthew 24:43). It will be completely unexpected.

The first believers held together two beliefs about the timing of our Lord’s return. First, that it would be soon, and, secondly, that it would be unexpected. As we know, it turned out, from a human perspective, not to be soon, and, already in the New Testament itself, we see that people were beginning to worry that our Lord had not returned (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:1-13). Nevertheless, the Church, despite the apparent delay in our Lord’s return, didn’t give up in hoping for it, and the hope of it continued to play an important part in believers’ lives.

Regardless of when it would take place, St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that they must be ready for it. And being ready for it means making sure we are living the sort of lives that God wants us to live. St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that they are always to be prepared, so that the Day of the Lord will not come as a surprise to them. When it does come, it will be a time of judgement. They must be prepared as ‘children of the light’. Even if we die before Christ returns, the next thing to happen to us will be the judgement.

If, for example, we know that we have an exam coming up, we want to be ready for it or we know we will fail. The reason that the Church has a season of Advent is to give us a chance to make sure we are awake and are preparing ourselves for the examination we will all to have to go through. Many, St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, won’t be ready for it. And, like students who don’t prepare for an exam, they will have to face the consequences. They may think that everything is wonderful and that they can get on with enjoying themselves without having to worry, but St Paul warns:

‘When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!’ (1 Thessalonians 5:3)

St Paul is confident that that won’t happen to the Thessalonian believers. They may not know the precise time when the Lord will return, but they know for certain that he will, and so they should be in a state of constant readiness for it.

In the remainder of the letter, St Paul gives some guidance to the Thessalonian believers as to how they can make sure they are indeed ready. This includes respecting and honouring those who are their leaders and allowing the Holy Spirt to work among them. St Paul’s prayer is that they may be kept ‘sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

So, what does this have to say to us today? Just this:

We are not likely to prepare for something we don’t think is going to happen

The delay in our Lord’s return has meant that, historically, believers have not always lived as if it could happen at any time and, certainly, if it had have happened, the Church would not always have been ready. Despite this, believers in the past at least didn’t lose sight of the fact that it would happen, and their belief that it would happen is one that is reflected in the Creeds of the Church. In a moment, we will say:

‘He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.’

We will say it, but whether we believe it or not is another matter altogether. For while the Church in the past believed it, even if believers weren’t ready for it, we are neither ready for it or believe in it. At least, not in the way the Church has traditionally believed in it. Many believers, I think, believe theoretically that our Lord will return, even if they don’t expect it to happen any time soon, and certainly not in their own lifetime. But to judge the living and the dead? That is not how most people see it.

The Church in its history has been through many debates and arguments about what it does and does not believe doctrinally. And yet, despite the many divisions and disagreements over so many different issues, believers from different backgrounds and churches have managed to remain in agreement on certain fundamentals. Believers have manged, for example, to be able to say the Creeds together and, generally speaking, they have meant them, in theory at least. This began to change particularly in the last century when theologians started questioning such teaching as the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the empty tomb.

As people in the Church questioned these beliefs, the way was opened for a more fundamental redefinition of Christianity. Where this has now led is illustrated most clearly when it comes to the idea of judgement.

John Lennon wrote and sang a song that has become the anthem of many today:

‘Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today’

While, in the Church, we aren’t ready to give up imagining heaven, few, I think, now believe that God is going to punish anyone; fewer still that he will do so eternally. And if he isn’t going to punish anyone, then, as John Lennon suggests, we can forget about hell. The Pope himself has been reported as saying he doesn’t believe in hell. Others, in answer to the question about whether they believe in hell or not, would reply that they do, but that they don’t think there is anyone in it.

The question of whether hell exists and whether there is anyone in it may seem to be one that we can safely leave to God. It is not our concern. We should get on, it is said, with ‘living for today’, that is, following Jesus and telling people the good news about him. Except it is not quite that simple.

If there is no hell and God is not going to punish anyone, then our presentation of the good news of Jesus is inevitably going to change.

Many today base their presentation on the belief that as Jesus died for everyone, everyone and everything will one day be OK. If that’s how we think, our preaching will be about telling people something that is already true for them, even though they may not realize it yet. When we say we need to be ‘awake’, it is not because something terrible is going to happen to us if we are not, but rather that we need to wake up and see the wonderful reality of what God has done for us whether we know it yet or not.

Some would go further and base their message solely on their understanding of God as a ‘loving being’. On this understanding, Jesus’ death never was about saving us in the first place. It was about someone so committed to loving people that he was prepared to die for what he believed to demonstrate how much we are loved and to give us an example of how we too are to love.

Having, then, got rid of hell as a way of describing the judgement that those who do not believe in Christ and who fail to live lives pleasing to God will receive, we have also become less concerned about heaven. After all, if regardless of anything we do, we are going to heaven anyway, or it’s coming to us, or whatever it is that will happen in the future, we can stop worrying about the world to come and whether we will get there and concentrate instead on making this world in the present a better place for everyone.

And if believing in Jesus is about coming to a knowledge of what has already happened to everyone whether they are conscious of it or not, then how we explain who Jesus is to people changes. Rather than being the one who will judge them in the future, Jesus becomes the one who has already unconditionally accepted them in the present. Rather than being the one who can save them from their sin because they are horrible and need changing, he becomes the one who can help them to fulfil their potential because they are basically good and need loving.

What our message comes down to on this understanding, then, is this: Jesus was a prophet and teacher who welcomed and accepted people for who they were and, in his death, demonstrated the true meaning of love. By his life and example, he encourages us to be the person we want to be and to follow our dreams here and now in this life, while reassuring us that we will all live happily ever after in the next. Inasmuch as he makes any demands on us, it is for us to do what we can to make this world a nicer place; to work to remove the barriers that prevent people from realizing their identity; and to seek to create a fair and equitable society for all.

It is a message that tells us what we want to hear, that makes no difficult demands of us, and focuses firmly on our life in this world. Whether it is one that you would want to die for or even, on a Sunday morning, to get out of bed for is another matter altogether. And yet this, or a version of it, is what people are being offered in many churches.

So here’s the thing: Before you sign up to this gospel for our age, I would just ask you to pause and consider again the traditional message of Advent. To ask whether we are right to abandon what the Church historically has believed and taught about death, judgement, heaven, and hell.

In our reading this morning, St Paul writes:

‘For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)

Let me ask in closing: who is the ‘us’ that St Paul is talking about here. It is not everyone. As we have seen he has just told them that destruction will come upon those who are sure that they are living in ‘peace and security’. Some most certainly are going to experience God’s wrath.

No, the ‘us’ is those who have put their faith in Christ, who died for us. Those who, as St Paul describes them, in chapter one have turned from everything that is not God to the living God who reveals himself in his Son, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead and ‘who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

And that, I suggest, really is a message that it is worth thinking about this Advent.


Monday, November 09, 2020

The Third Sunday before Advent

1 Thessalonians 4.13-18

St Paul so far in his first letter to the Thessalonians has expressed both his thanksgiving for the faith of the Thessalonian believers and also his gratitude to God for the way they have not been shaken by the persecution and suffering they have been experiencing as a result of becoming believers. St Paul himself, as we have seen, had to leave Thessalonica abruptly and prematurely because of persecution from the Jewish community.

St Paul had sent St Timothy back to Thessalonica to see if the Thessalonian believers were persevering, and he has been in a state of some anxiety waiting for St Timothy to return with news of how the Church in Thessalonica is getting on. St Timothy, St Paul writes, has now returned and the news is good: the Thessalonian believers are keeping the faith, living in love, and longing to see St Paul and his co-workers again (1 Thessalonians 3:6). St Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that he longs to see them again too, and prays that it will be possible for him to return to visit them (1 Thessalonians 3:10-11). In the meantime, in the letter, St Paul seeks to remind the Thessalonian believers of what they were taught when he was with them and of the example that he and his co-workers have given them.

Although the news is good, and clearly the Thessalonian believers are doing their best to be faithful and to follow the teaching they have been given, they are still relatively new believers. In the last two chapters of the letter, then, St Paul seeks to address areas where he feels they need particular encouragement and help. St Timothy would have provided St Paul with information about the Thessalonian Church to help him in this. It is even possible that St Timothy brought a letter from the Church, although we do not know that for certain.

In chapter 4, St Paul begins by urging the Thessalonian believers to live as they have learned from St Paul and his co-workers and to continue to seek to please God in their lives (1 Thessalonians 4:1). St Paul singles out ‘sexual immorality’ as something they particularly need to avoid and guard against (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

While at first, Sts Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy had concentrated on preaching in the synagogue when they were in Thessalonica, the majority of the Church in Thessalonica were clearly from a pagan background. Some of them could have come from a group known as the ‘godfearers’. These were pagans who were attracted to the Jewish faith but who did not fully convert to Judaism. Others, however, seem to have been converted straight from paganism, independently of the synagogue. St Paul has described their background and new found faith in chapter 1:

‘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)

Pagan worship often included prostitution, and sexual freedom itself was common throughout Roman society. In the New Testament, idolatry and sexual immorality are often linked together. By urging the Thessalonian believers to avoid sexual immorality, St Paul is clearly focusing on an area where he thinks they were vulnerable.

St Paul turns next to an area in which the Thessalonian believers are doing well. He writes:

‘Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10)

In encouraging them, however, to go loving one another, St Paul does so in somewhat unusual terms. He writes that they should aspire to live quietly, to mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). They are to do this, he writes:

‘… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:12)

Saint Paul in chapter 4, writes about the ‘Day of the Lord’. Fundamental to how the New Testament describes what it means to believe in and live for Christ is the absolute conviction that Christ is physically going to return. The first believers genuinely believed both that it could be soon and that it would be unexpected. Saint Paul writes here as one who thinks of himself as being among those who would be alive when Christ returns.

All sorts of theological systems have been developed to explain what will happen when Christ returns and what the events leading up to it will be. This is not at all what Saint Paul is trying to do here. His concern is as much about what Christ’s return means for us now, before he comes again, as it is to describe what will happen when he actually does come again.

In describing our Lord’s return, Saint Paul deliberately uses vivid and symbolic language. The event itself will be real enough, but it is impossible for us fully either to imagine what it will be like or to describe it using human language. St Paul writes about it employing what would have been well-known phrases and images from both the Scriptures and from Roman culture: ‘cry of command’, ‘the archangel’s call’, and ‘the sound of God’s trumpet’.

While these phrases and images all refer to real events, which will happen in the future, they are not in themselves meant to be pressed too literally. We avoid getting it wrong, or falling into error, by keeping it simple. The fact that Christ will return is what matters, not the precise details surrounding his return.

But how are believers to live until he does? In teaching the Thessalonian believers how they are to live, Saint Paul assumes that there is a fundamental distinction between believers and unbelievers. He calls unbelievers ‘outsiders’ (1 Thessalonians 4:12). In living for Christ, we are to make it a priority to love those who, like us, are also are in Christ. When it comes to our daily lives, we are to get on with them. When Saint Paul says believers are to work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11), he doesn’t mean that only manual work is of any use, although he does have a more positive view of manual work than many of us do. What Saint Paul means is that we shouldn’t give up work because we think Christ will soon be back. Nor are we to seek support from others in the Church wealthier than us, and certainly not from outsiders. We are to ‘keep calm and carry on!’

There is a question that the Thessalonian believers do need answering, however. It seems that some of the Thessalonian believers had died. The exact circumstances of their death and how they died, we are not told. It may have been because of natural causes or even as a result of persecution; we do not know. But their death did raise the question of what would happen to those believers who had died, given that they had died before our Lord’s return.

Notice that Saint Paul is writing out of a present pastoral concern and not because he wants to speculate about future events. The Thessalonian believers’ love for each other was such that they naturally grieved the loss of members of the community, and St Paul wants to offer them reassurance and comfort.

Saint Paul begins with the fact that Jesus died and rose again. This will be the future experience of believers who have died. The dead in Christ will rise first and meet with Christ as he begins his return. Those still alive, and Saint Paul writes as if he thinks he might be one of them, will meet up with Christ and the newly risen believers. And so, St Paul writes, we will be with the Lord for ever.

Saint Paul tells the Thessalonian believers to encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18). His words are not meant to lead to endless arguments about the future, but to give hope in the present. St Paul writes:

‘But 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)

The believers’ sure hope is that Christ will return and that we will then be with him forever.

The question is often asked about how St Paul envisages the so-called ‘intermediate state’, that is, the time between when believers die and when they will rise to meet Christ when he comes again. St Paul never goes into details, but he is certain that whatever happens in this ‘in-between time’, we who are believers will be with the Lord. As St Paul puts it in chapter five, which we will look at in the podcast next week, Christ’s death for us means that ‘whether we are awake or asleep, we may live in him’ (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

Dead or alive, before Christ’s return or after, those who have put their faith in Christ are guaranteed life and a place with the Lord.

What does this all mean for us today?

1. We need to regain a sense of the importance of the Lord’s sure return for us in the present

Understandably, given that so many years have passed since the Lord’s death and resurrection without any sign of his return, believers have shifted their hope from the Lord’s second coming to going to be with the Lord when we die. Those who do think about the Lord’s return, mostly do so to speculate on the events that may or may not happen when he returns and the timetable for them.

Ironically, St Paul, who did believe that the Lord was coming soon, refused to enter into speculation about what would happen in the future when the Lord returned, and concentrated instead on what the Lord’s return meant in the present for us as believers. Inasmuch as we are concerned at all about our Lord’s return, we have reversed that concern and focus on the future and not the present. We need to reverse it back and focus on what our Lord’s future return means for us now.

After we die, the main event won’t be going to be with the Lord in some sort of heavenly existence, it will be when we rise to meet the Lord on his return. This will be the time when our redemption will be completed and when we will experience the redemption of our bodies, as St Paul writes about notably in Romans (Romans 8:23-25). Yes, we can be sure, as St Paul was, that when we die we will be kept safe, but we will be kept safe for a purpose. Death is not the end nor is it even the beginning. The beginning will still lie in the future. And before our salvation is complete, we will still have to appear before the judgement seat of Christ.

The general default position of the Church today is universalism. This is the belief that everyone will one day be saved. We are certain that regardless of what people may or may not have done, the love of God will eventually triumph. This combined with the common view of Jesus as someone who accepted and welcomed everyone with no questions asked means that we are insulated against the shock that these and other verses should give us. If we persist in believing that all will be well regardless, we are in for a far greater shock than we can ever imagine.

As St Paul writes:

‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)

This means that what we now do in the body and with our bodies matters tremendously. This is not to say we will be saved by our works, but we will certainly not be saved without them. St Paul warns believers in the Church in Corinth, in no uncertain terms, that certain forms of behaviour will exclude people from entering the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

St Paul doesn’t say this to frighten us or to undermine our confidence in our salvation. He does so to encourage us to get our lifestyle right: so that we re-order our priorities now before it is too late.

2. Faith in Christ is a state of being that results in a way of life

St Paul begins chapter four with the words:

‘And so, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more.’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1)

Faith isn’t just about what we believe in our heads but how we live our lives. Trusting in Christ must lead to obedience to Christ. St Paul in encouraging the Thessalonian believers in how they are to live and please God focuses on sexual behaviour.

In books about ethics, one thing you will hear a lot is that the Church in the past has concentrated far too much on issues of sex and has ignored other areas that are equally or more important. The Church is frequently accused of having been ‘hung up on sex’. This accusation is made especially against some sections of the Church and against leading figures in its history, most notably St Augustine.

While it is true that the Church in the past may have got aspects of its teaching wrong, it has not been wrong to prioritize issues of sexuality. There is an irony in that those who condemn the Church for being in the past, as they see it, obsessed with sexual behaviour are themselves now obsessed with issues of gender and sexual identity. The two, however, can’t be separated. Sexual behaviour, that is, who we have sex with, and sexual identity, that is, what gender we are, go together.

Many today argue that biological sex and gender are two different things. (BTW: This is what is being taught to children in many schools.) On this view, it is perfectly possible, for example, to be born biologically male and yet to be female in gender. This view, I believe, is both wrong and dangerous.

As humans we are embodied beings. Our bodies are intrinsic to our identity and to who we are. Our hope, as believers, is that our bodies will be resurrected and redeemed. When God created the human race, he created us biologically different: ‘male and female created he them’ (Genesis 1:27).

In Romans chapter one, St Paul writes that the immediate consequence of human beings rejecting God and turning to idols is that they fell into sexual disorder and sin. Sexuality and idolatry are closely inter-related. It is no coincidence that, as we today have substituted the worship of Self for the worship of God, our sexual identity has become such an issue. Our disordered spiritual identity has resulted in a disordered sexual identity. Sexual immorality is not just about who sleeps with whom, important though that is, but how we understand ourselves as sexual beings.

Clearly this is a subject that needs more said on it than I can say today. Suffice it, then, for now, to say that as much as we might prefer to relativize issues of sexuality and leave it to individuals to make choices for themselves that is not an option open to us if we take God’s word to us seriously. St Paul writing to those in the Church in Corinth who believed that they were free to do whatever they liked ‘in the body’ tells them:

‘Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.’ (1 Corinthians 6:18)

Our bodies are essential to our identity. What we do in the body matters.

3. Faith in Christ creates a separated community made up of those who believe in Christ

When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century, it was to lead to the creation of ‘Christendom’ and the idea of the ‘Christian nation’. This was the belief that all who belonged to the Christian nation were themselves Christians. The process known as secularisation saw the end of Christendom as those nations that previously had adopted Christianity as their official religion largely abandoned it and removed Christianity from the public sphere, making religion essentially a private concern for individuals.

Unfortunately, the idea of Christendom continues profoundly to influence how the Church sees its role and mission in the world. We can’t bring ourselves to abandon the idea that the Church has a major part to play in the affairs of the state and society of which it is a part. We refuse to see ourselves as a separated community and to let go of the role we once had.

Our desire as a Church to be integrated rather than separated has been given fresh impetus by the adoption of universalism as the Church’s understanding of the future of humanity. On this view, everyone, it is believed, will one day be gathered into the coming Kingdom of God. This means that people, even now in the present, although they do not realize it, are part of the people of God.

Our role as a Church in preaching the Gospel on this understanding, then, is to make people aware of their status and future destiny and to announce to the world the good news of the universality of God’s Kingdom. What Christ has promised to his people, it is claimed, is promised to all people whether they realize it or not, accept it or not. All are included and all are to be welcomed and accepted.

This is not at all how our Lord, St Paul, and the New Testament writers saw it. The Gospel is about how those who are not members of the Kingdom can become members while there is still time for them to do so. Those who become members will be saved and those who do not will be lost. The Gospel tells people that it is only by turning from their present state of idolatry to the living God that they can be saved from the wrath that is to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Those who turn to the living God become part of a community that does not belong to this world and who, instead, ‘seek the city that is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14)). Those outside the community of the Church are perishing and face destruction when the Lord returns. St Paul describes them as ‘without God’ and ‘without hope’ in this world. This is the reality of their situation and we are called as a Church to tell the truth and not to give false hope.

All that St Paul writes about how believers are to live is for those inside this community; those not part of the community are ‘outsiders’, who will one day find themselves excluded from the Kingdom our Lord comes to bring. In writing to the Thessalonian believers, St Paul seeks to guide them as to how they should live as they await their Lord’s return. He prays that their love for each other may increase. He expresses his desire for believers as he writes:

‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ (1 Thessalonians 3:13)

Our lifestyle in this world is to reflect this hope and understanding of the Gospel. It means we need to rethink how we behave in this world so that we may, as St Paul again puts it, ‘conduct ourselves properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no-one’, and certainly not on those in power in this world. We are to be a separated community of believers who lead lives worthy of God, who calls us into ‘his own kingdom and glory’ (1 Thessalonians 2:12).

And so today, we are a people of hope who look forward to that day when we will rise to meet the Lord who comes to save those who have put their trust in him. Until then, may we seek to lead lives worthy of him as men and women whose identity is found in Christ, who died for us, and for whose return we expectantly wait and pray.


Sunday, November 01, 2020

All Saints' Day

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, All Saints'.

All Saints' Day

Reading: Philippians 4:10-23

With our second reading this week, we have come to the end of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Two of the main themes of Philippians are clearly in view in the final chapter of the letter. The first is the theme of ‘joy’. As we have seen, St Paul uses the ‘joy’ word group sixteen times in the letter.

Here, in chapter 4, St Paul writes emphatically:

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice.’ (Philippians 4:4)

Again, as we have noted previously in this series of sermons on the letter, St Paul’s primary meaning when he speaks of joy and rejoicing isn’t that we should be happy. There will be times when we will be happy as believers. Very often, however, we will be anything but. Happiness by its very nature is an emotion that depends on how we are feeling and on what is happening in our life. Joy is more than a feeling, and rejoicing is something we can do regardless of how we feel. Instead of using the word ‘rejoice’, we could translate what St Paul writes as: ‘celebrate in the Lord’.

This week I got a promotional email from Marks and Spencer, which said ‘celebrate with us’. This is St Paul’s message, only he tells the recipients of his letter to celebrate in the Lord!

To ‘rejoice in the Lord’, then, is to celebrate who we belong to and what he means to us. This is something far more significant than feelings of happiness, which, by their very nature, are transient and circumstantial.

It is because we ‘rejoice in the Lord’, St Paul tells the Philippian believers in chapter four, that we who have faith in Christ do not need to worry. Instead, we are to bring what is troubling us to God and ask him for his help and to give us what we need (Philippians 4:6). It is because we have this confidence in the Lord and know that he will look after us that St Paul can write:

‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 4:7)

The peace of God guards our hearts and minds whatever happens to us. This, then, brings us to a second theme of the letter. It relates to the ‘mind’ and how believers think. St Paul uses the ‘mind’ word group ten times in the letter.

St Paul has urged to Philippian believers to strive with ‘one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27); he has asked them to make his joy complete by being of ‘the same mind’ (Philippians 2:2). In chapter 4, he specifically asks two of his co-workers who have fallen out with each other to put their differences aside and to be of the same ‘mind’ (Philippians 4:2). In chapter 2, he has already told them and the other Philippian believers that they should have the ‘same mind as that which was in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:5). He tells them all that those ‘who are mature should be of the same mind’ as him in ‘forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward’ to what God has ahead for them (Philippians 3:13).

St Paul has told the Philippian believers that they should have the same mind, the same outlook, and the same way of seeing the world as Christ. Now, in chapter four, he tells them actively to replace negative and wrong thoughts with positive and right ones. St Paul encourages the Philippian believers to drive out evil thoughts by thinking good thoughts and filling their minds with what is holy. He writes:

‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

To rejoice in the Lord is to rejoice in what glorifies the Lord and to reject everything that is contrary to our faith in him.

Finally, in these last verses of chapter four, we come to one of the main reasons for that St Paul has for writing the letter in the first place. The Church at Philippi had sent St Paul a gift of money to support him as part of their partnership with him in the Gospel. The Philippian believers were amongst St Paul’s most faithful supporters. He writes that they have supported him from the very beginning, even when he was in Thessalonica when he first came to Macedonia (Philippians 4:16).

This gift of money has been brought to St Paul by Epaphroditus who nearly lost his life in the process (Philippians 2:27). These last verses of chapter four, then, are St Paul’s ‘thank you’ for the gift they have sent him and his official receipt. To our eyes, it seems a rather complicated way of saying ‘thank you’. Why doesn’t he just come out with it and say, ‘thank you’?

Part of the reason is that he is following the conventions of the day for how to express thanks for a gift. Even today, for example, we have established formats for different types of letters. Another part of the reason is also that he has told the Philippian believers that they should not worry, but make their requests known to God. He has also just told them, in the passage immediately before our reading for this week, that they should follow his example (Philippians 4:9). St Paul needs to be seen to be following his own advice! He doesn’t want the Philippian believers to think that God has failed to provide for him now he is in prison.

Instead, he writes that he sees the Philippian believers’ gift as, above all, an offering that they have made to God and which God has shared with him. (Just as priests shared in the offerings sacrificed to God in the Temple!) St Paul himself has learnt to be content whether he has a lot or a little. He can do all things through God who strengthens him, regardless of his material circumstances. Nevertheless, he is genuinely grateful to the Philippian believers for their concern for him. God will provide for their needs too (Philippians 4:19).

As the Philippian believers show with their gift, however, and as St Paul acknowledges, God does indeed provide, but he provides through his people as they share what they have. We refer in the Apostles’ Creed to the ‘communion of saints’. The ‘communion of saints’ is a real communion of all those who have faith in Christ, both past and present. For those of us in the present, it is not simply a spiritual communion but a practical one as we share what we have with each other in partnership for the Gospel. The Philippian Church’s gift to St Paul showed how they thought and what their outlook and priorities were.

So what can we learn from this?

St Paul makes it very clear in the letter to the Philippian believers that how and what they think is important. What goes on in our mind, matters. We have seen, when we looked at St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, how St Paul tells the Romans believers that they are not to be ‘conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds’ (Romans 12:2). Our minds as believers need to be constantly renewed. The way we think will determine what we do and how we live.

Firstly, we need to reject a worldview that leads us to think and have attitudes and values that conflict with the Gospel.

Not only do sinful thoughts and attitudes come from within us, the world around us tries to shape the way we think and see things. We are constantly being encouraged to adopt a mindset and outlook that is opposed to God and what it means to be a follower of Christ. We are bombarded with images and ideas designed to lead us away from how God wants us to think and from having the mind of Christ.

The internet, and what it has given rise to, has taken this to a whole new level. The writer, Yuval Noah Harari, who is certainly not sympathetic to those who believe in God, believes the time is coming soon when companies such as Google will know us better than we know ourselves. They will be able to use this knowledge to control us. They are already doing so to a significant extent. For us as believers, this poses a far bigger threat than that posed in the past by hostile governments.

Every moment of every day we are being subjected to ideas and images at a conscious and unconscious level designed to control our minds and thoughts and so to influence our behaviour and actions. It often amuses me that people in the west have so much to say about state control and about regimes which seek to influence how their citizens think, when they themselves are the most thought controlled generation that has ever existed. Influencing how people think and behave is, after all, what capitalism is all about.

The consumer society is built on persuading people to buy things that they don’t need, didn’t know they wanted and, very often, that they will never even use. If you want to see what mind-control looks like, sit on the MTR and count how many people are NOT staring at their phones. It won’t take you very long!

The sheer brilliance of capitalism has been in controlling people’s thoughts and actions, while all the time leaving them thinking that they are free and responsible for their lives and how they live them.

The great achievement of the religion of Self has been convincing people to believe they have the freedom and power to live as they choose and to do what they want. The reality being that they choose what they are told to choose. Left to ourselves, we are powerless to resist and subject to forces beyond our control.

A simple example makes the point. Have you ever had the experience of seeing a picture of yourself taken some years ago and being thoroughly embarrassed by what you were wearing and what you looked like? Many of us have. But, at the time, we thought we were dressing perfectly normally. We were, in fact, just following the fashion. We don’t just follow fashion in what clothes we put on, but also in how we think and behave as a consequence.

In every area of our lives we are subject to unseen forces which exercise a powerful influence over us. But these aren’t just the social, cultural, and economic forces that I have been describing. These are themselves powerful enough. The Bible, however, describes how we are subject to spiritual powers, whether we believe in them or not. These powers exercise their control over us, not least by controlling how we think and by shaping our worldview, ensuring that we conform to this world and, worse still, are obedient to the ruler of this world.

Today, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. The saints are those who having found freedom in Christ went on to have victory over the world through their faith in Him. This is why the world hated them as it hated Christ before them. It is why it hates those today who, like the saints, put their faith in Christ and discover the peace and freedom he brings.

It is surely no coincidence that the world, at the time of year when we are celebrating the victory of the saints, prefers instead to celebrate, not that victory, but images that represent the very forces of darkness that the saints fought against and triumphed over. Of course, I realize that most people do this thinking it all to be harmless fun. What they don’t realize is, that without knowing it, they are celebrating images of the forces that control them. The Devil doesn’t much care whether we believe in him as long as we think and do what he wants.

Secondly, not only are we to reject the worldview of the world, we are to have the ‘mind of Christ’.

This isn’t something that happens automatically but is something that we have to work at. It is something that we consciously have to make an effort to do. It means in the first place having the same attitude and outlook as our Lord. It also means replacing evil thoughts with good ones. It is perhaps worth saying at this point that many believers describe how they have thoughts they cannot help and of which they are ashamed of thinking. This will always be true until these bodies, of which our minds are a part, are themselves redeemed.

Nor are we in this life, able to escape the evil images and words with which we are constantly bombarded. Even more so in the age in which we live than in previous ones. We do, however, need to resist them and their influence upon us. This means not simply avoiding that which is obviously evil, but also, as St Paul tells the Philippian believers, thinking on that which is positive, good, and true. St Paul would urge us to take control of what goes into our minds.

The reason that St Paul is so concerned in chapter 3 about the false teaching of those he calls the ‘dogs’ is that he knows that what we think and believe inevitably affects how we live. He wants the Philippian believers not only to reject false teaching, but to make knowing Christ and having a relationship with him the goal of their lives.

All this can sound all very theoretical, but as St Paul shows it affects every aspect of how we live our lives, not least in our attitude to material goods and money. We are be thankful for what we have, rather than constantly wanting more. Rather than worrying, we are to make our requests known to God, knowing that God will provide for our needs; not necessarily our wants, but certainly our needs. We are to stop competing with others and promoting ourselves, and, instead, we are to seek to work in partnership with each other in proclaiming the Gospel.

All this is hard, but we have the assurance that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And when we are tempted to give up and despair, we know that God promises that his peace will guard our hearts and minds.

St Paul explains to the Philippian believers that he wants them to be ‘blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’, in which they ‘shine like stars in the world’ (Philippians 3:15).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Today is their day, and we thank God for the witness of those in Christ who went before us. They too faced great opposition, but they conquered ‘by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Revelation 12:11). St John tells us that greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). The challenge we face as we seek to live for Christ may seem a daunting one, but the saints show us what can be achieved by those who trust, as they did, in the One who promises, not only to be with us, but in us.

Today, we honour the saints. We give thanks to God for them for their faith and courage. We ask them to pray for us that we too may shine like them and like them overcome through faith in Him who died for us, but whom God has so exalted that, as St Paul tells the Philippian believers, at his name, the name of Jesus:

‘… every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ (Philippians 2:10-11)