Monday, October 30, 2023

Even So We Speak

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

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

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

The Last Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Opposition

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

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

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

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

2. Orientation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Operation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Paul writes:

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


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

A Dangerous Gamble

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

This is the link to podcast itself:

A Dangerous Gamble

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, October 14, 2023

Think On These Things

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

This is the link to podcast itself:

Think On These Things

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 4:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Rejoice

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

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

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

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

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

2. Pray

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, October 08, 2023

That I May Know Him

This is the written version of my sermon for this week!

The audio version of the sermon can be listened to at this link:

That I May Know Him

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 3:4-14

Our second reading today is one of my favourite passages, although that description doesn't really do it justice. I don't know about you, but when I hear the word ‘favourite’, I can't help but think of Julie Andrews and the Sound of Music. ‘Favourite’ in the sense of the sort of things that Julie Andrews sings about are not what I mean in talking about this passage! Favourite simply doesn’t do it justice. This passage gets to the heart of what being a believer in Christ is, or should be, all about. It is a life changing passage - at least it changed mine.

St Paul writes:

‘that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10–11, LSB)

Last week, we saw how St Paul dealt with personal differences and disagreements in the church at Philippi by urging the Philippian believers to have the ‘same mind’ in themselves that was in Christ Jesus. While there were some personal conflicts in the church, we said that church in Philippi does not appear to have had any serious theological issues in the way, for example, that the churches in Galatia had.

St Paul’s experience, however, was of people who were determined to cause theological problems in his churches by challenging his understanding of the Gospel. This challenge came principally from Jewish believers in the Church who felt that St Paul was wrong about God's Law and its role in the life of a believer. St Paul was concerned that these people might one day make their way to Philippi and cause trouble in the church. He wants to warn the Philippian believers in advance before they get there. He does not hold back. St Paul writes:

‘Beware of the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware of the mutilation!’ (Philippians 3:2, LSB)

I said last week that it was amazing that St Paul, himself a devout Jew and a contemporary of Jesus, could write about Jesus in the exalted way he does in chapter 2. It is also amazing that he can talk of his opponents in this way. What St Paul's opponents were advocating was everything that St Paul himself had devoted his life to before he became an apostle. What they advocated was not in itself so revolutionary. They simply taught that if someone believed in God's Messiah, they should also keep God's Law.

One of the central commandments of that Law was that a male must be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant and their commitment to God. God himself had said when he gave the commandment to Abraham that a person could not be a member of God's people, if they were male, unless they were circumcised (Genesis 17:14). Jesus himself was circumcised, as was St Paul. And yet here St Paul calls those who advocate circumcision ‘the mutilation’. Instead, St Paul tells the Philippian believers that it is they who are the ‘circumcision’. They are the ones who worship in the spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3).

The word ‘flesh’ in the New Testament can refer both to the physical stuff of which we are made and to our nature as humans, that is, our ‘self’ and our identity. St Paul sees circumcision as a mark in a person’s physical flesh that symbolizes a person's confidence in themselves. Certainly, St Paul’s opponents were proud of their Jewish heritage and all that went with it.

The obvious response to what St Paul writes here was to suggest that perhaps St. Paul said this because he himself had nothing to be pleased about and little to boast of. In fact, this was something St Paul's opponents did say to Corinthian believers when they turned up at the church in Corinth to cause trouble there. They accused St Paul of being unimpressive physically and inferior to other leaders in the Church (2 Corinthians 10:10). In our passage today, St Paul responds directly to this accusation.

He writes that he was circumcised on the eighth day. In other words, as a Jew he was the genuine thing: he was of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews. When it came to the Law itself, he writes, he was a Pharisee, that is, he was a member of one of the groups within Judaism that was most committed to the Law. As for zeal, he was a persecutor of the Church; in other words, he had actively opposed those whom he saw as the enemies of God's Law. As to righteousness which came by obedience to the Law, he was blameless. He had had and had done everything that his opponents valued and advocated.

But here's the thing, says St Paul, whatever had been to his own personal gain, he now counted loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, he claims, he counts all things as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. This could all sound like mere rhetoric or just well-meaning words, except that St Paul continues by writing that he actually has suffered the loss of all things for Christ. Rather than missing them, he counts them as rubbish that he may gain Christ and have a righteousness that is not his own, gained by his own effort keeping the Law, but a righteousness that comes through the Gospel and which is from God by faith.

It is, then, after explaining all this, that St Paul makes this powerful statement. St Paul writes:

‘… that I may know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10–11, LSB)

St Paul has had and has done all that his opponents advocate and boast about, but he has given it all up, not reluctantly but gladly. Nothing compares to knowing Christ. Even so, St Paul writes that he has not yet obtained all that he wants but he presses on looking forward to what God has promised to give him.

He tells the Philippian believers that he wants them to see him as a role model and to do the same. Knowing Christ now, they too are to press on to what God has for them in Christ in the future.

There is so much I wish I had the time to say about this passage, but perhaps I can highlight the following three points.

1. Losing all things for Christ

St Paul had literally lost all things for Christ, including his freedom. St Paul you will remember is in prison for Christ when he writes this letter to the church at Philippi. It is important, however, to make a distinction here. There are some things it is necessary to lose either because they are bad in themselves or are bad for us. Killing, stealing, and lying are examples of things that are bad in themselves. Alcohol, while not bad in itself, may for example, be bad for someone who finds it hard to stop drinking. There are other things, however, that while not necessarily bad either in themselves or for us that we still have to be prepared to lose if God wants us to.

St Paul judges all things in relation to the value that Christ has for him. We too need to see the value of things in the light of Christ. Seen in this light, things that previously we saw as not only good but of great value become of much less value. St Paul writes he regards them as rubbish. Most of us do not find ourselves called to lose all things, but we are all called to value things differently to how society around us values them, and this can be hard.

The other day, I was watching a documentary about women who wanted to become nuns. In it, some nuns were filmed going into a school to talk to young teenagers about what being a nun involved for them. They describe how they took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These young women had literally given up all things. What do you think the teenagers found hardest to believe the nuns had given up? The first thing on their list was their phones!

Now we may not value phones as much as the teenagers did (although I expect we may!), but there are things that each of us do value. These are things which are really important to us and which we cannot imagine doing without. They may not be materially valuable. They may be more the sort of favourite things that Julie Andrews sings about. But they are things that we find the thought of losing difficult even distressing. We need to ask ourselves what it is that we would find most difficult to give up for Christ.

2. Gaining Christ

Secondly, we need to see that we are not called to give up things for the sake of it. Indeed, most of the time, apart from things that are intrinsically wrong, most of us are not called actually to give things up at all. What St Paul is concerned about, however, is the value we place on things compared to the value we place on our relationship with Christ. St Paul is happy to lose all things because in losing them he gains Christ.

People will often make sacrifices for something they believe in, even being willing to die for a cause. This is not what St Paul is talking about here. St Paul is concerned here not so much with what we believe, although that comes into it, but with how important our relationship with Christ is to us and what we would be prepared to give up in order to know him, irrespective of whether we are in reality called to give them up or not.

Often, we are emotionally attached to things whether they are intrinsically valuable or not. They can dominate our lives and occupy a central place in them. It is Christ and knowing him who is to be the centre of our lives and, for St Paul, it is the surpassing value of knowing Christ that makes it possible for us to give up things that we value.

We are always going to be attached to things and find them hard to give up if we don't have a relationship with Christ. It is not easy believing in God and living a life of faith, and if we remain at the level of seeing our faith as a philosophy of life or a code of ethics, we will never quite understand what St Paul is talking about here. When, however, we see our faith as being about a relationship with Christ who is himself the source of all things, including life itself, that we will gain a different perspective on life.

3. Forgetting what is behind

Thirdly, St Paul knows that although we can truly and personally know Christ now, we know him as people who are mortal and who will one day die. St Paul’s own hope is that that he will attain the resurrection of the dead, that is, that after his death he will be raised from the dead to live with Christ eternally, and so his relationship with Christ will last forever. This is the goal he is pressing towards and what he is looking forward to, and he wants the Philippian believers and us to do the same.

It is hard to look forward, however, if you are always looking back. This is why St Paul writes that in reaching forward to what lies ahead, he also forgets what lies behind.

Some people have problems remembering, either because they have a bad memory or, more seriously, because of a terrible illness such as Alzheimer's. Others of us, though, have a problem forgetting. We have difficulty forgetting, for example, the wrong we ourselves have done and because of the guilt we now feel; or in forgetting harm or injury that has been done to us in the past; or in forgetting opportunities that we missed or were denied to us. Life is full of ‘if onlys’: if only I had not done that; if only that had not happened to me; if only I had been given the opportunity or taken my chance when I had it. If only …

At one level, of course, it is impossible to forget, if by forget we mean ‘erase all memory of the past’. St Paul does not forget that he was a persecutor of the Church. He even mentions it here in this chapter. But we can let go of the memory; we can let go of the guilt, the regret, and the resentment; let go of all that might have been and focus instead on all that we now have in Christ and what we have gained in knowing Him. We all have things holding us back that we need to break free from, so we too can press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

When it comes to what we have given up for our faith, little is achieved if we continue to look back and to long for what we have lost. We are to forget both the good and the bad in our past and hold on to what we have attained in Christ and look forward with hope to all that God promises to those who are faithful to him.

May God grant us the will and the strength to do so.


Monday, October 02, 2023

With Fear and Trembling

I am pleased to say that I have again managed a written version of the sermon for this week! The link below is to the recording of the sermon itself.

With Fear and Trembling

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Philippians 2:1-13

Our second reading this week is from St Paul's letter to the church at Philippi. It contains a very well-known passage that some people describe as a hymn because of the way it is structured. Nowadays, it is normally laid out in a poetic form in our Bibles. It describes how Jesus left his rightful place with God, died a humiliating death for us, and was exalted by God, so that everyone will one day acknowledge his authority to the glory of God.

It is very well-known, but we tend to miss a lot of its significance. St Paul, a Jew, is writing about someone who was his contemporary and who was executed as a rebel against Rome and yet St Paul can say that everyone, including those Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus and who hammered the nails into his hands, will one day kneel before him and confess Jesus and not Caesar as Lord.

It is indeed a remarkable passage. When St Paul describes how everyone will kneel before Jesus, St Paul has taken a passage in the Old Testament from the prophet Isaiah that refers to God himself and has applied it to Jesus (Isaiah 45:3). It is, however, remarkable not only because of its theological content, although that is remarkable enough. It is remarkable because St Paul has included this hymn not to tell his readers something they didn't already know about Jesus but to encourage them to be like Jesus and not only to worry about themselves and their own interests. They are, St Paul tells them, to have the same mind in them that was in Christ Jesus. Jesus was of exalted status and yet he humbled himself. St Paul wants his readers to do the same.

The church at Philippi was especially loved by St Paul, and the feeling was mutual. The Philippian believers had been on board with St Paul's mission from the very beginning, and St Paul acknowledges in the letter the practical support they had given him on more than one occasion. The reason he is writing to them now is in part to say thank you for a gift they have sent to him while he is in prison. While the Philippian believers don't seem to have had any serious theological issues that were troubling them, there is, nevertheless, some evidence of personality clashes within the congregation and that they were finding it difficult always to get on with one another. So, for example, in chapter 4, St Paul writes:

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.’ (Philippians 4:2)

St Paul continues by describing these two women as ‘co-workers’ who have struggled beside him in the work of the Gospel and yet, despite their commitment to the Gospel, they seem to have fallen out with one another.

Many of the divisions and conflicts in congregations are of a personal nature. As a clergyman, I am aware that people are more likely to fall out with me because they don't like me than because they don't agree with me theologically.

St Paul, however, believes strongly in the need for unity and harmony in the Church, and he knows how destructive these personal disagreements and differences can be. St Paul urges the Philippian believers to put aside such feelings by regarding others as better than themselves and by having the same attitude as Jesus. Jesus put our interests before his own, and they, he tells them should follow him by putting each other’s interests before their own.

In this way, the passage follows on very well from what St Paul writes in his letter to the Roman believers on the subject of food, which we looked at last week and the week before. St Paul told the Roman believers that what mattered was not that they got to eat or not eat whatever they wanted, but the good of the church and of each other.

In our passage today, St Paul concludes the so-called hymn by describing how Jesus will be the One before whom all will one day appear. He then draws an important conclusion from this. In his letter to the Roman believers, he says something similar. St Paul writes to the Roman believers:

‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”’ (Romans 14:10-11)

The conclusion St Paul drew from this in his letter to the Roman church was that each one of us will be held accountable to God (Romans 14:12). He draws the same conclusion in Philippians. The Roman and Philippian believers would have got the significance of the imagery St Paul uses more than most of us do today. The ‘judgement seat’ was an actual seat in the public square where the Roman governor or official sat to hear accusations brought against people. The Roman governor was Caesar’s representative and had the power of life and death. To be brought physically before the ‘judgment seat’ in public to give an account of oneself and one’s actions was a frightening thing to happen. How much more so when the person sitting on the judgement seat is Christ himself acting as God’s representative?

Three things, then, from this passage this morning.

1. Jesus not Caesar is Lord

Firstly, Jesus not Caesar is Lord. St Paul is clear that the governing authorities are appointed by God to keep law and order and that the believer is to be subject to them (Romans 13:1-7). We are to respect those in authority, obey them, and pay the taxes due to them.

This doesn't mean there are no limits to their authority or that there aren't times when we have no choice but to obey God rather than them (Acts 4:19; 5:29), but it does mean that submission to them is something God wants from us. Our duty is to pray for those in authority, not oppose them, much as we might prefer to do otherwise. However, St Paul is also very clear that the governing authorities having been appointed by God are themselves subject to him whether they realize it or not. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord!

This means that we can have confidence that the course of history and all that take places within it are not under the control of earthly powers, much as they might think they are in charge, but under the control of God. Presidents Biden, Putin, and Xi; Prime Minister Sunak and Chief Executive John Lee are not Lord and in control, Jesus is. Jesus is because God has exalted him to that position. We honour earthly presidents and rulers as appointees, but we do not fear them. Jesus said:

‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you whom to fear: fear the one who, after killing, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear that one! (Luke 12:4-5)

2. With Fear and Trembling

Secondly, following on from this, then, we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

We do not fear earthly rulers and authorities, what we are to fear is having to stand before Christ and give an account of ourselves. I've never understood why people don't find this more scary. I think one of the reasons is that we have convinced ourselves, or allowed ourselves to be convinced, that there is nothing to fear: God is just too nice. And so, when we die, we believe, God will be so pleased to see us that he will just wave us into heaven, no questions asked. Believe this if you want to, and many do believe it, but there is nothing in the Bible that supports such a belief. So rather than the idea of appearing before God leading us to amend our behaviour, we think there is nothing to worry about. Convinced God will save us whatever we do, we just do what we want to do. If it is not going to matter what we do, why bother?

At one level it is a reasonable response. If there is not going to be any need for us to give an account of ourselves and there are no consequences for us regardless of how we live, then not only does it not matter how we live, we are naturally not going to be bothered about what may happen in the future. Whatever happens it will all be OK, or so we tell ourselves.

Imagine, however, if you were to find yourself standing in front of Jesus, and he was to question you about your life and behaviour. How would you feel then? Imagine being asked, for example, why we didn't go to church more regularly. How would that make us feel, I wonder? And that's a fairly innocuous example. What would it feel like when the questions got on to other aspects of our life? How would we feel when the questions became more personal and challenging?

There is a reason why we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling and that's because it is our salvation we are talking about, and that is a serious business that we all too frequently take far too lightly. But where then, you may ask, does this leave, the love of God. If we are all going to be required to give an account of ourselves to God, does this mean, we are to see God primarily as a judge whose main concern is that we should behave correctly and who will pass judgement on us if we don’t? All this talk of fear and trembling doesn’t sound very loving!

3. For God is at work in us both to will and to do

Frankly, if what St Paul were saying is that we are to work at our own salvation on our own, knowing that at the end of our life God will assess us to decide how well or otherwise we have done, we are all doomed. None of us left to ourselves would do very well at all. We would definitely need to be frightened, as we would certainly fail.

That, thankfully, is not what St Paul is saying. St Paul certainly is saying that we are to take our salvation seriously and work at it, but we are to do that because it is God himself who at work in us to motivate us both to want to do it and to do it. God knows that we can’t ‘just do it’. It is God who gives us the desire to work out our salvation and God who gives us the ability to do it. God is already at work in us if we have faith in Christ, now he wants us to work with him. The process of our salvation doesn’t end when we come to Christ; it begins. Or at least, it should.

There are some branches of the Church that talk about salvation as if it is only something that God works in us; we are simply passive recipients. Other branches talk about salvation as if it is entirely down to our own works and effort.

St Paul, however, sees salvation as a work that God does in us that God enables us to work with him to achieve. St Catherine of Siena said that God created us without our help, but he won't save us without our help.  We are not merely passive recipients, but active participants. Salvation is a work of God, but we have not only to receive it but to work at it.

If you take the example of physical health. We can be given the gift of a gym membership and a personal trainer to go with it, but we still have to turn up and do the work out. What is more our fitness will be assessed at the end of it!

We are not saved by our works, but we are not saved without them. So knowing that we all will appear before the judgment seat of God, that we will bend the knee before Jesus as his appointed representative, and that we will confess Jesus as Lord. Let us take seriously the need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who is at work in us both to want to will and to do. And let us do that, as St Paul writes, so that we will give glory to God the Father.