Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Holy Spirit: our language teacher

Holy Spirit is like a language teacher – a personal language tutor.

Those of you who are language teachers, or who have had language teachers, will know that they have several tasks.

They need to teach the skills of the language: the vocabulary and the grammar
But they also need to teach their students how to live in the new language: how to see things in a new way, and how to think in a new way.

If you start to live in a new language, you start to make different connections.
For instance, one of the things I have wondered about is the difference between a language like Russian, which has gender differences deeply rooted in its language, and a language like English that is principally a-gender. And that must have an impact on how we think.
Or it could be little connections that open up new ways of thinking for you.
For example: Belgrade is the capital of Serbia. To somebody who does not know the language, it is just the name of a city. To somebody who knows Russian or Serbian it means much more.
Or Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox thinker, writes a book based on the fact that ecть means both to eat and to be. We are what we eat?

When you learn a new language, you are not just learning a new skill. You are learning -  and I don’t think this is an overstatement – a new way of thinking and of living.

So the goal of the language teacher is not only to teach the skills of the language, but it is to be a companion, a guide to their student, even a friend of their student, so that the language becomes part of their student and so that they live in the language.

That seems to be a great picture of what Jesus is saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is.

The Holy Spirit is described in our passage as ‘the Paraklete’, literally the one who comes alongside us. In the KJV that is translated as comforter; in more recent translations, it is translated as advocate.

The Holy Spirit is like a heavenly language teacher.

And I don’t think that it is complete coincidence that when the Spirit came on that first Pentecost he came with ‘tongues’ of fire, and that he equipped the first Christians to speak in tongues, in the heavenly language.

Without Holy Spirit we are mono-cultural.
We can only speak and think in the language or the languages of this world.
But when Holy Spirit comes, we discover another language, another way of speaking, thinking and living – a new world.

Holy Spirit helps us to see Jesus in a new way

People who speak the language of this world will speak of Jesus as an Israeli peasant, good or as bad, as a moral example or as someone who was seriously deluded. They will speak of him as criminal or a tragic victim or as a model of someone who is prepared to die for a principal.

But Holy Spirit shows us a very different way to see Jesus.
Jesus in John 16.9 tells us that Holy Spirit will prove the world wrong about sin .. ‘because they do not believe in me’.

When Holy Spirit comes alongside a person they begin to see Jesus not just as a human being, but as the eternal Son of God, the one who God the Father sent into this world. We will see him as God’s king and Gods’ ruler. We will begin to realise that to come to him and to put our trust in him is to receive life, and to be without him, to reject him, is to choose death.

We think of sin as doing naughty stuff. There is a great translation in the BCP where we pray that God will deliver us from ‘a superfluity of naughtiness’.
But Jesus definition of the root cause of sin, and therefore the Holy Spirit’s definition, is that sin is the refusal to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, refusal to come to him, to receive him or to put our trust in him.

On the day of Pentecost Peter stands up and preaches a sermon. He talks about Jesus. He ends his sermon by saying to the people of Jerusalem, ‘This Jesus, who you crucified, God has made ruler and king’. And the people are convicted. They cry out and they say, ‘We’ve rejected Jesus. What must we do to be saved?’

And they say that not because Peter has persuaded them, but because the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see Jesus in a completely new way.

And Holy Spirit, we are told, helps us to see the righteousness of God (v10)

In 1 John 2.29, John speaks of righteousness as right-ness, doing what is good.
Jesus taught righteousness. He lived righteousness. So while he was with his followers, they saw righteousness

But when he was gone, Holy Spirit puts Jesus’ righteousness in their minds and their hearts, in our minds and hearts: so that the man or woman who is open to God, in a right relationship with God, will desire to do what is good. She won’t do what is good because it is written down, a law she has to obey. She will want to do what is good because it is her deepest desire
St Augustine said famously, ‘Love God and do what you desire to do’.

And Holy Spirit, helps us to see judgement (v11)

It is when we look at Jesus, and at the cross, that we see most clearly the clash between the world view of our old human languages, and the new Holy Spirit language.

The old language, the old-world view, sees Jesus’ death on the cross as defeat. It is the world’s judgement on Jesus: for being a fraud and a failure

But Holy Spirit language sees Jesus’ death on the cross not as the world’s judgement on Jesus, but as God’s judgement on the world. Holy Spirit sees Jesus’ death on the cross as the final defeat of Satan, of death.
Satan did everything he could to stop Jesus going to the cross. He tried to kill him as an infant, to tempt him with wealth and power, to persuade him through friends, and to terrify him with the fear.
But with Jesus, obedience wins and love wins.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see the world in a new way

Holy Spirit is our teacher.
‘He will guide you into all truth … He will declare to you the things to come’ (v13)

The disciples can’t take it all in.
They’re in a bad place.
Jesus has spoken clearly of how he is going to be crucified. He has made it very clear that this meal that he is eating with them now is his last meal.
But, says Jesus, there will come a time, when Holy Spirit will teach you the things that you can’t understand now.

And we see that.
The death of Jesus overwhelms them.
We are told about two disciples who are walking to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion. They were broken people. They are so crushed that they don’t realise that the person walking with them on the road is Jesus, who has risen from the dead. They say to him, ‘We believed in Jesus, we had thought, we hoped .. but it all ended in tragedy.’
And Jesus comes alongside them and teaches them.

He teaches them that his life, the Christian life is not just about suffering. Nor is it just about glory. It is about suffering and glory.
And he opens their eyes, and they suddenly realise it is him.

Holy Spirit is our personal language teacher.

But he is also our friend, a presence with us, just like the risen Jesus walking beside those two disciples.

There are times when we will be conscious of that presence.
Some people have very dramatic, explosive encounters with Holy Spirit. Not everybody, and please don’t worry if you haven’t had such an encounter. He is still with you, if you have asked him to come into your life, and to fill you. And even as we eat the bread and drink the wine today we can invite him to come into us.

And for all of us there will be times when we are not conscious of him.

One of the Puritans describes it a bit like a father walking along with his child. For a long part of the journey they will be walking together – and maybe the child will be chattering away, and the Father will be quiet. And then suddenly the Father lifts the child up, embraces her, and then places her down again and they carry on walking.

But even if we do not feel him or sense him, by faith we believe that he is with us and he will teach us – as we read God’s word

Jesus says, ‘He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. all that the Father has is mine’ (v14-15)

With Holy Spirit alongside us, we see this world as ultimately belonging to Jesus. All things: whether music, creativity, natural laws, sex and sexuality, alcohol, plants and mountain rocks.
And Holy Spirit begins to teach us how to treat these things as things that belong to Jesus. We begin to learn to use them in obedience to his Word and we use them with great thanksgiving.

And Holy Spirit helps us to see all people as belonging to Jesus: rulers, enemies, friends, family, parents and children, colleagues, customers, clients, fellow worshippers.
And we begin to learn to relate to them as people who belong to Jesus, even as they were Jesus

I guess that is what happens at Holy Communion. We take bread and wine, very ordinary things, but we look at them with new eyes, with Holy Spirit eyes, and we see how they can be used for Jesus: to bring Jesus to us, and to join us together in communion.

So Holy Spirit comes alongside us as our language teacher, and as our friend.

It will be difficult. We’ve been told it will be.

There is a clash of languages and a clash of cultures, and each one of us will feel it deep within us. There will be times when we really struggle.

And we know that it will be rough, but we also know this: that Holy Spirit is with us. We are not on our own.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The blessing of giving

2 Corinthians 9.6-15

This is our final week looking at giving. Today we are looking at the blessing of giving.

When you give, there is great blessing

There is blessing for you as an individual
There is blessing for the church
There is blessing to God

There is blessing to you as an individual

9.6: ‘The one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’.
9.8: ‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance’
9.11: ‘You will be enriched in every way for your great generousity’.

The Old Testament comes very close to saying that if you are generous, you will – in this life - receive back more than you give.

Proverbs 11.25: ‘A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.’
Proverbs 22.9: ‘Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.’

Or when God speaks to the people through the prophet Malachi, he accuses them of stealing from him because they are not tithing. And he goes on and says, ‘Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.’ (Malachi 3.10)

And you hear people preaching that today. They urge their congregations: ‘If you want to be become rich and prosperous now then you need to give, and you need to give to this ministry here’.

I would love to be able to say that – both because I’d love you to give to the ministry here and because I’d love you to become rich and prosperous – but I cannot.

What I can say with 100% certainty is that the more you give, the poorer you will become!
If you give away 10% of your income you will be 10% poorer!

Jesus clarifies a bit of what the Old Testament is saying.

He doesn’t contradict it, but he challenges us to think where our values lie. And he doesn’t deny that if you give, you will become richer. He simply says it will not be here or now.  
Jesus was not wealthy. That is an understatement. He was homeless (‘he had nowhere to lay his head’), dependent on the giving of others or on little miracles (like when they caught a fish with a coin in its mouth), and he ended up naked, with the soldiers gambling for his only possession worth anything – his robe.
In fact, Jesus tells us that we are to let go of riches here in order to store up riches in heaven. It is a bit as if he is saying that everything you give away here is being added to your bank balance in heaven.

But the promise of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is that if you give, you will become richer here. You will become richer as a person.

If we step out in faith and give, and sacrificially give, we will discover that God is able to provide for our needs.
Verse 8 tells us that God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance, ‘So that, by always having enough of everything, we may share abundantly in every good work’

And v10 speaks of how, if we give, God will increase the harvest of your righteousness

It is when we take small steps of faith that we discover that God is able to provide for us.
Alison reminded me of when we were about to leave Russia in 1995. We had $500 left. It was all we had, although I was probably going to get a job as a vicar back in the UK, and we had immensely supportive parents. And a young woman who we knew from the Orthodox seminary where we lived (she was training to become a choir director) came to us the day before we left in great distress to say that her fiancée, who was a seminarian, was being threatened because of debts owed in the past. And if he didn’t pay by a certain date, they said that they would kill him. And I don’t know if we were being taken for a ride or not, but it seemed true. So we gave her the $500. We returned to the UK, and discovered a friend had written for us a £1000 cheque.
It may be only a coincidence, but it is the sort of coincidence that makes you put your trust even more in the God who provides for us, and it is the sort of coincidence that can only happen if we are prepared to take the step of faith and give in the first place.

I would love to be able to tell you that we have continued to live our lives like that – but it would be a lie. But what I do know is that when we live our lives like that, we become richer people.

v9 tells us, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. That is not describing God. It comes from Psalm 112, and it is describing the person who fears God:

Don’t you realise? If we have real life, we will be people who give life to others. The point of having money is to give money. Generousity is not the add on to life. It is written deep into the DNA of life.

That is why greed and corruption destroy.
They destroy a society, because nobody knows who they can really trust.
But more importantly, they destroy the individua: it is about how I can try to get and not to give. And the more I grab and the more I try and keep for myself, the bigger I may become in this world – with a bigger house, and a bigger yacht, and a bigger reputation, but my true self, my soul, shrivels up. ‘What does it do to someone’, says Jesus, ‘to gain the whole world, but to lose their soul’

God gives freely to us, so that we can freely give, and share in every good work.

It does not depend on how much money you have.

Mary Ann, a member of our congregation in Bury St Edmunds, spoke of a visit to some Christians in Uganda. Materially, the people who she visited had hardly anything. Yet she was overwhelmed by how generous they were to her. They opened their lives and their homes. They shared what they did have. And the thing that made the greatest impact on her, and the thing she brought back with her, was the fact, that despite having so little, they had such a strong faith in Jesus and such a joy in him.

We were not made to keep, but to give.
Where it really matters, your life will not be rated by how much you got, but by how much you kept back for yourself.

I am preaching this as much to you as to myself.

We do tithe. I hope most of you do, too, as Christian believers. That is the easy bit, once you have decided to do it. But it is about what I do with the remaining 90% that matters. This is the challenge to me. I’m very cautious with money. And yes we need to be wise; we need to invest for the future; we need to think about what will happen when we grow older.
But our money is a gift from God. It is to be used – and not just to make my own little nest more comfortable. It is to be used to bless people. And it is to be given.

And the more we give the bigger we become

There is blessing to the Church

We’ve already seen this principal at work. The Corinthian church have been collecting money for the church in Jerusalem that is suffering from famine. They meet ‘the needs of the saints’, and in turn the saints, the believers in Jerusalem, ‘long for you and pray for you’ (v14)

Of course, as believers we need to give to ‘every good work’.
But just as you have a special responsibility for members of your own family, so as members of the Church we have a special responsibility for members of the family of the Church
That is why it is good that we can give to Syrian and Coptic Christians in need. We can be a blessing to them, and they can be a blessing to us by praying for us.

But there is also blessing to the Church because giving enables the Church to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

Paul speaks here of their obedience ‘to the confession of the gospel of Christ’ (v13)
And that is why it is vital that we do regularly and sacrificially give to the work of the church. Without that, the work of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, will become so much more difficult. We are seeing that in the UK. Churches are closing because people are not paying for the ministers or the ministry of the church.
It is not just in the UK. I heard last week that one of our nearby European chaplaincies is possibly going to lose its full-time minister, because it cannot be afforded.
And we’re there yet. Don is constantly having to struggle with the figures.

So when the people of God give – then the ministry can flourish, and the good news of the love of Jesus, of his victory over death, of the gift of his Holy Spirit, of friendship with God, of the hope of heaven can be proclaimed. The church can develop new ways of reaching out to people, and new ways of helping people grow in their faith. And we can develop new works of mercy.

When God’s people give, the Church of God is blessed.

There is blessing to God
Paul speaks of how the generousity of the Corinthians will bring ‘thanksgiving to God through us’ (v11), and that their gift will not only supply the needs of the saints, but also overflow with many thanksgivings to God (v12). And Paul finishes the chapter by declaring, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift’ (v15).

There are, in fact, multiple thanksgivings

We thank God for his provision.
There is thanksgiving when we receive a gift, whether someone has given R100, R1000 or R10000.

We thank God for his work in you that you have chosen to give.
We know what is important to a person by what they give to.
If you want a simple way to measure your spiritual temperature, think about what you have put in the offering bag today. Because what we usually put in the bag (not the amount, but what it really costs us -Jesus saw a poor woman put a R50 note in the collection, and he said she had given more than the people who put in many R1000 notes because she had given everything she had), but what we normally put in the bag is one of the indicators of what God means to us.
I remember challenging one of our members in Bury St Edmunds who was quite well off. He rather proudly told me that he was putting in 50p each week. I said, ‘Thank you. That is great. I am assuming that you are also telling me that God means less to you than half of the one of the newspapers that you read each day’.
So when people do sacrificially give, we do give thanks, because it means that God is working in their life, and that he is becoming more important to them.

We thank God because we have begun to realise that everything we have is gift

So I invite you to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.

The story is told of the man who stood up in church to share his testimony. He said, ‘I came to this country with £10, and the Lord told me to give it all away. So I gave it away, and he gave me £100. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and he gave me £10000. The Lord told me to give it all away, so I gave it away, and that is why I am standing in front of you today as a multi-millionaire.’ And a little old lady at the back of the church stood up and said, ‘Go on. I dare you’.

I dare you – and me – to take a step of faith when it comes to giving.
I dare you to give that it might be a blessing to you, so that you will become a richer person, a more generous person, a person who discovers that God provides.
I dare you to give to bless the church, the people of God, and to enable us all in the work of declaring the good news of Jesus.
And I dare you to give so that people will turn to God and give him thanksgiving – for you, for the reality of your faith, for all that he has given us, and for Jesus.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The integrity of Giving

2 Corinthians 8.16-24

We continue our theme on giving looking at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

The background is this: there is a serious famine in Jerusalem. The churches of Asia Minor and Macedonia, including the church in Corinth, have agreed to raise funds for famine relief.

In chapter 8.1-15, Paul has spoken about our motives for giving: that we give out of gratitude to God for what he has given us, and that is a response to the Lordship of Jesus. He is now into practicalities. He commends to the Corinthian church three people who will visit them in order to receive the gift and take it to Jerusalem. We need to remember that in the first century there were no notes, no cheques and certainly no bank transfers. If people were giving money, they were giving the hard and the heavy stuff!

So who are these three people?
There is Titus, Paul’s colleague and co-worker
There is ‘the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that but he has also been appointed by the churches to ravel with us while we are administering this generous undertaking’ (v18f). Some commentators think that this might be speaking of either Luke or Barnabas. But that is not really important.
And there is (v22), ‘our brother whom we have often tested and found eager in many matters’.

And in these verses Paul speaks about:

1.      The need for integrity in dealing with money

Paul writes, ‘For we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others’ (v21).
Paul is concerned that not only should he do what is right, but that he should be seen to be doing what is right. There is to be no hint of any scandal. When we come to money, this has to be Caesar’s wife stuff. She must not only be chaste, but she must be seen to be chaste.

For churches, this is particularly important. We need not only to be people of integrity, but to be seen as people of integrity.

Billy Graham died a few weeks ago. When he began his work as a small-time evangelist, he was dependent on many small gifts. But as the work grew, and the gifts grew, he realised that he needed some sort of system. He set up a business, paid everyone on the team – including himself – a fixed salary, and published his personal accounts each year.

In the UK and the US there is often pressure on politicians, and particularly on senior politicians, to publish their personal accounts. That pressure is often resisted.

But I wonder what it would look like if your personal accounts were published
-          where you got your money from
-          how you spent your money
How would it look if everybody could see where your money came from and how you spent it?

As believers we are called to the highest level of integrity when it comes to handling our money.

There are three questions that we need to ask.

1.      How did we get it: legally or illegally?

And even if we got it legally, did we get it because we exploited other people or took advantage of their weakness; did we get it because we destroyed something rather than created something. Or can we put our hand on our heart and say that how the money came to us was right.

2.      What do we do with it?

How do we spend our money? On what do we spend our money?

Do we pay our taxes?
Jesus speaks twice about the need to pay our taxes (Matthew 17.24ff, and Matthew 22.15ff), and Paul writes about paying our taxes in Romans 13.6-7.
It is part of the idea of the common good. Somebody has to pay for schools, police, hospitals, social security, defence. And if you or me don’t pay for it, then either those services cannot be provided or others will need to pay for them.

I understand that the introduction of the 13% flat rate of taxation in Russia was because people were not paying taxes. It was felt that if a simple low flat rate was brought in, people would pay/ But, for westerners (and in the UK we are used to a normal rate of 20% taxation and 40% for higher earners), it is low. For those who are wealthier, it is low.
And I would argue that those who are wealthier, or those who find themselves in a situation in which they cannot pay taxes, then those who are wealthier have a far greater responsibility to give over and above the 13% for the common good – whether that is supporting a hospital or a school or a place of worship or whatever.

And do we give?
Last week I spoke about the biblical guideline of tithing – giving away 10% of what we receive. I said it is only a guideline: some of us here should not be tithing; most of us probably should at least be tithing, and there will be some who should be handing on far more than a tithe.

But we need to remember that as Christians, as people who have given our lives to God, everything that we have belongs to him.

The story is told about the delivery man who never delivered anything. They went round to his flat and found it crammed full with TV’s, clothes and groceries. As they were taking him away, he said, ‘But why did they give me all these things if they didn’t want me to keep them’?

As believers we’re delivery men and women. We’ve been given everything that we have in order that we can then give it on.

A minister received a letter from a little girl in the congregation, in which were a few coins. She had written, ‘This is my thieving money’. It was alarming. Had the Sunday school started to send out the children Oliver Twist style to do a bit of pick pocketing in order to raise funds? But when he spoke to her, he realised that she has misspelt ‘tithing’. If we are not giving what we can afford, or even over and above what we can afford, then we are – like that delivery man – guilty of thieving.

A godly sister from a local ladies monastery was being taken up the drive of an oligarch. It was a vast estate, a tree lined avenue, and at the end a huge English style mansion. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘so this is what our Lord would have done if he had had some money’.

Think on it!

3.      And this is in fact probably the most important question:

This is the question that Jesus asks people time and time again. He urges them not to be controlled or slaves to money.
Next week we’ll look at Luke 12, where a person asks Jesus to arbitrate in a dispute about a will. Jesus says to him, (Luke 12:15) ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’.
And when Jesus tells someone to sell all that they have and come and follow him, it is not an invitation to a life of poverty, but an invitation to a life of freedom

We become like those objects that we worship. And if we worship money, if we make our God, then we will become like money: cold, hard and calculating.

Pray for us as a church that we will have integrity in dealing with money that has been given – that if we say something is something, it will be used for that.
And pray for yourself and for me – that we will treat the money that we have with integrity, not as our money, but as the Lord’s money.

2.      This collection, and those who administer it, are working for the glory of God.

v19: ‘While we are administering this generous undertaking for the glory of the Lord himself’
v23, ‘As for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of God’. Most commentators say ‘glory of God’ refers to the messengers and not, in this case, to the churches.)

This is quite an encouragement for me.

I’m British and fairly reserved, especially when it comes to asking people for money. I feel that it is a bit mucky and embarrassingAs a pastor I should be focussing on other things.
But it seems that Paul disagrees! He is saying that asking people to give to a God-cause, to something that is good and right and God honouring, and managing that money, is to the glory of God.

And what intrigues me is that one of the three people who have been sent by the churches to Corinth is well known as a preacher of the gospel, as an evangelist.
Why? Why send him?

Giving – if it is done for the right reason – is good news

If I tell you that you must give, you must tithe, because it is a law, and it will make God love you more, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I tell you that if you give you will become materially prosperous, then it is a lie and a false gospel
If I try to get you to give by taking you on a guilt trip, because you are well off when others are starving, it is a false gospel.
(It reminds me of the argument that we sometimes tried to use with our children: ‘Eat your brussel sprouts, because there are starving children in the world who would love to have food’. It is using guilt to try and make your children eat everything up. It never worked! The usual response was, ‘Well they can have it!’)

But if I tell you that God loves you and that you can give nothing to make him love you more; and if I tell you that Jesus died on the cross so that you are completely and freely forgiven, and you need to give nothing in order to make him forgive you more; and if I tell you that God calls you – yes you – to know him personally, to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to receive his Spirit, and you receive that gift, then you will want to give. Giving is the signature of the Trinity. It is the signature of the believer. It will be giving as a response to his love. It will be an act of gratitude and an act of submission and trust, to the one who loves you.

I think of Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector who lived in Jericho and used his position to exploit people and take from them what he wanted. He heard that Jesus was coming to his home town, and he wanted to see Jesus. But so did everybody else and there was a crowd. As he tried to shove his way through, they wouldn’t let him. So he climbed a tree. And when Jesus walks past, he looks up into that tree and he looks up and says, ‘Zacchaeus, come down, because I’m going to stay at your house’.

The crowd are unhappy. What had Zacchaeus done to deserve that? He was a thief. He was unclean. He was a traitor. In the UK it would be like Jesus going to the home of a known paedophile who had made a lot of money by exploiting children on the web. But Jesus goes. He shows the love of God, even to a someone who had been a nasty, grubby, greedy little man. And no doubt he speaks of the love of God, of the welcome of God. And something happens. Zacchaeus could have rejected Jesus, and rejected the love of God, but instead he receives it and he commits himself to be a follower of Jesus. And we are told that as Jesus leaves, Zacchaeus takes his money and says, ‘Lord I will give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay him back four times’.

That is gospel, good news giving, and it is the sort of giving which brings glory to God.

So what about you?
Have you received the gospel, the good news of Jesus?
Have you heard of how much he loves you?
Have you, as a response, given your life to him – your relationships, hopes and fears, time, home and stuff to him?

Because when you do, you will realise that we are just the delivery man or woman. And you will want to be trustworthy and you will want to give; to give to society for the common good, to give to people in need, to give to the Church for the work of proclaiming the good news of God. And you will give: freely and abundantly.

And that will bring glory to God.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A talk for St Mark's day

Mark 13.5-13

Mark or John Mark is the writer of the gospel. He is not one of the 12 apostles, although he was probably personally associated with Jesus and his first followers. It is possible that he is the ‘young man’ who flees naked from the site of the arrest of Jesus. It is a strange incident only recorded in Mark’s gospel (Mark 14.51-52).

John Mark “was a Jew and, according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, cousin to Barnabas. He accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey. Afterwards, he went to Cyprus with Barnabas and to Rome with first Paul and then Peter. Mark’s gospel is generally regarded as the earliest and was most likely written whilst he was in Rome. It was probably based as much on Peter’s preaching of the good news as on Mark’s own memory”.

It is an interesting gospel reading that has been chosen for today (Mark 13.5-13), but on reflection, it makes a lot of sense

Jesus is speaking here about how hard it will be to be a disciple - and Mark is personally very aware of that. If he was in Rome, then it is likely that he was writing at the same time that Christians were experiencing savage persecution. Nero had lined them up as the fall guys for the Great Fire of Rome
And Mark 13 is a call to the first Christians to persevere, to recognise that even if the political situation gets bad - and it got really bad in Israel with the siege, capture and destruction of Jerusalem; even if there is bitter opposition and persecution; and even if families are irreconcilably divided - the believers are not to be deceived. They are not to surrender to some sort of non-gospel, but to remain faithful to Christ and, through it all, they are to continue to witness.

It was hard then. It is hard now.

For 70 years in this country, believers suffered persecution - and at times it was savege.
But today it is also hard - in a different way
I find that it is so much easier in our secular society to speak to somebody about church, or about our services or about Anglicanism, or even about some forms of spirituality (being at peace, mindfulness, a sense of oneness with creation) - than it is to speak with someone about Jesus Christ.

It is hard to say that I believe in God who I cannot sin. That I live my life based on the assumption that the Palestinian peasant, Jesus Christ, is the eternal Son of God, that he died for my sin, that he rose from the dead, that he is alive now, and that he will one day return as judge and establish his kingdom.

If non-believers really hear what I am saying then they should look at me as if I am mad.

It is so far from the assumptions of our society: which treats religion as a leisure activity, something that is OK for you to do so long as it doesn’t impact on anybody else. A bit like Morris dancing, or train spotting. Although they have a bit more credibility.

And if people listen to what I am saying, they will realise that if what I believe is by any chance actually true, then it challenges everything that they put their trust in and how they live.

It is hard to be a witness to Jesus and a follower of Jesus, and Jesus throughout Mark’s gospel warns us that it is hard. Living as a Christian is about taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him.

But these are good verses to summarise Mark’s gospel. Because they not only tell us that it will be hard. They also speak of hope.

1. Mark speaks of the political chaos, of the earthquakes and famines, as birth pangs. In other words, they are intensely painful, but it is - if those who have given birth allow me to speak in this way - a good pain. Out of it will come something amazing and wonderful. Out of this suffering will come new life and joy.

2. He speaks of how we will speak before rulers - and that the Holy Spirit will speak through us. I thought that meant that we would suddenly be inspired to preach a perfect sermon without any preparation. How I long for that! But actually I wonder whether what Mark is saying is that God will be glorified and we will witness to Jesus even in our stumbling words. God uses not our strengths but our weakness to bring him glory. So if you stand there and stumble over your words - whether you are standing before rulers or speaking with your hairdresser when they’ve asked you what you believe, and you lose all power of communication and stutter out the words ‘Jesus is my Lord’, the Holy Spirit will use that.

3. Mark tells us that the message of Jesus will be taken to all nations. It is a very simple verse: ‘And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations’ (v10). That, if you think about it, is a staggering claim - especially in a day when there was no regional means of mass communication, let alone global mass media. And today, 2000 years later, this is a prophecy that has almost been fulfilled.

4. Mark tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved.

So the message of the Mark, and the message of these verses, is that it will be hard - but that there is hope.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Motives for giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-15

For the next four weeks we are going to be looking at what the bible teaches about giving. And I hope that what we discover will be both liberating, and life transforming. 

I’m always slightly nervous when I speak about giving, because most people think that the only thing that the church wants is your money.

Story of three men in the trenches. About to go over the top. The sergeant says to one of his men, ‘This is really bad. Tell us a bible verse, say a prayer’. The man replied, ‘I don’t know any bible verses and I don’t know any prayers, but if you want me to do something religious, I’ll pass the plate around’.

We quite like it like that. It makes God and religion manageable. It means that if we give our 50 or 100 roubles, or even our 1000 roubles, we think we’ve done our bit. I’ve put the money in the basket – so its OK and I’m OK.
But if that is our attitude, then we are not giving, but we are paying for a good conscience.

So, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 8.1-15. They teach us about a right motive for giving.

Paul is writing to the early Christian community in Corinth. They’ve said that they are willing to collect money for the church in Jerusalem and Judea, who are experiencing severe financial hardship. And Paul is writing to them to encourage them to do what they have said that they will do.

And the thing that strikes me about these verses is the emphasis on the freedom and the joy of giving.

Paul speaks of the giving of the Macedonian Churches.
Look at the words he uses: “their abundant joy; overflowed in a wealth of generousity; they voluntarily gave; begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry”.

This is about abundant voluntary generous giving.
It reminds me of the woman who took a jar of precious oil, equivalent to the value of a labourer’s wage for a year – about half a million roubles – and she poured it on Jesus.

This is about being voluntary, eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers. This is a million miles away from the guilt inducing campaigns of many charities and, for that matter, churches. And it is a million miles away from the scrabbling around inside our pocket or purse to see what we’ve got left over to put in the collection plate!  

So how can we become eager, earnest, willing and joyful givers?

1.      We give ourselves first to God

Paul writes of the Macedonian Christians, “They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (v5)

This is so important. If we wish to discover the joy of giving, then before we give our money, we need to have first given our life to Jesus Christ. It is about saying to the Lord Jesus, ‘I love you and I trust you, and I commit my life to you. I will go where you want me to go, I will do what you want me to do. I will live for you and I will live with you. I will die for you and I will die with you’.

Jesus is the heavenly highwayman who stops us in our tracks and who doesn’t say, ‘Your money or your life’, but says ‘Your money and your life’.

Of course, we need to constantly surrender ourselves to God.
If you’re anything like me, you have moments of conviction when you hear the call and you respond: Yes. You kneel down before him – literally or metaphorically - and offer everything to Jesus.
I’ve told of how Archbishop Burnett of South Africa speaks of how he went through every part of his body – beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head - dedicating each part to Christ’s service.
But then the circumstances of life overtake us, and temptations overwhelm us – and we need to renew that commitment. That’s why communion is so precious. We come again to receive the love of Jesus, to ask him to fill us with his Holy Spirit, and to offer ourselves afresh to him.

And when we give ourselves to Jesus, he will begin to transform our desires. We discover a new place to put our identity and our security.
Some of the things that we thought it so important to have will become far less important. And there will be new and different motivations.

And of course, if we give ourselves first to Christ, it means that we give all we have.

People sometimes ask, ‘Well how much should I give?’
The answer is, ‘everything’.
I think of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, and Jesus said to him, ‘Sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me’.
And maybe that is the radical calling for some, to sell all they have and join a monastic community.

But for most of us, we are called to live in this world.
And so God gave his people in the Old Testament the command to tithe – to give a tenth of everything you receive.

It is something that Jesus speaks about (Matthew 23.23), and it is a very good principle to follow. It is one that I have followed all my life: literally the very first thing that comes out of my salary is the tithe that I will give. When I was in the UK it was by standing order. Here we go to Sperbank and take the money out, and put it aside for Sunday.
But I emphasise that in the New Testament, everything we have belongs to God, and so all our money belongs to him – and tithing is only a principle, a suggestion, and it is not a law.
I note that here Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthian Christians to tithe. Instead he tells them of the Macedonian Christians who gave ‘according to their means’ (v3).
He is far more concerned with motive that amount: ‘For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’ (v12)
And that means that some people should not be tithing, and others should be tithing and then giving far more.  

The important point here is that before we give our money, we need to have first given to the Lord Jesus our life.

2.      We give because giving is the logic of the gospel

At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the supreme act of giving: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. (v9)

Everything that we have is a gift. Life is gift. This world is gift. Our place in this world is gift. Our upbringing, talents, opportunities we are given, and the ability to make use of those opportunities is gift. Our possessions are gifts. We did nothing to deserve them.

And how much more is the gift of a relationship with God, of forgiveness, of his word spoken to us, of the Holy Spirit and His presence with us, of membership in his family, of the promise of eternal life, of the kingdom of God and ultimate fulfilment and joy. Not only did we do nothing to deserve that – we actually did everything we could to dis-deserve that.

But because of the love of God, Jesus left heaven and came to earth.
He gave up intimacy and peace with God so that we who were alienated from God could become intimate and have peace with God.
He gave up his life, and died, so that we who will die, might have life. 
He gave up heaven for earth, so that we who were destined to go under the earth, might have heaven.
He gave up everything for us, so that we who had nothing, might be eternally united to him and have everything.

It is all gift. The logic of the gospel is gift

And when a person gets gripped by the logic of the gospel, when they realise all that God has given for them, and when they receive the gift, then they will begin to live by the logic of the gospel. They will be eager to give – and they will give.
Why? Because the Spirit of Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that we might become rich, lives in them.
Why? Because we want to become like Jesus, who was rich but became poor so that others might become rich.  

Let me put this very simply.
If you are a believer, if the Spirit of God lives in you, and if you are being guided by the Spirit, then you will want to give.

And if you do not have that desire to give, or if when the plate comes round you give simply because you feel you ought to, then I’m going to make the radical suggestion that you do not give, at least to the work of the ministry of the church. God won't love you any the less, and you will feel much happier about it.

I like the story that is told of the mother who wanted her daughter to learn about giving. As they went to church she gave her a R10 coin and a R100 note. She said, 'You can put either into the collection and keep the other'. As they were going home, mum asked her which she had put in. She said, 'Well at first I thought I would put in the R100, but then the preacher said that God loved a cheerful giver, and I thought I would be much more cheerful if I had the R100. So I put in the R10'.

But the astonishing thing is that if you decide not to give, and you then realise that God still loves you, and that you are absolutely welcome here, you might begin to realise a little of what grace actually means. And you might discover that what you really desire to do is to give yourself to him. He really does want your life.

And if you do desire to give:
1.      Be wise! Tithing is a great principle, guideline for giving, but nobody should be overburdened.  
2.      If you want to give, don’t let things come in that stop you from doing what you really want to do, from what you were made to do. Don't let forgetfulness, or laziness, or procrastination, or fear or spiritual drowsiness get in the way. Go home, even today, and put aside the money that you want to give. Do it.

A man called Richard Stearns writes, "In 1987, one of the largest, single-day stock market crashes since 1929 took place. In one day my wife, Renee and I lost more than one-third of our life's savings and the money we had put aside for our kids' university education. I was horrified and became like a man obsessed, each night working past midnight, analysing on spreadsheets all that we had lost, and the next day calling in orders to sell our remaining stocks and mutual funds to prevent further losses. (Of course that turned out to be the absolute worst thing I could have done.)

I was consumed with anguish over our lost money—and it showed. One night when I was burning the midnight oil, Renee came and sat beside me. "Honey," she said, "this thing is consuming you in an unhealthy way. It's only money. We have our marriage, our health, our friends, our children, and a good income—so much to be thankful for. You need to let go of this and trust God." Don't you hate it when someone crashes your pity party? I didn't want to let go of it. I told her I felt responsible for our family and that she didn't understand. It was my job to worry about things like this.

She suggested we pray about it—something that hadn't occurred to me—so we did. At the end of the prayer, to my bewilderment, Renee said, "Now I think we need to get out the chequebook and write some big cheques to our church and ministries we support. We need to show God that we know this is his money and not ours." I was flabbergasted at the audacity of this suggestion, but in my heart I knew she was right. So that night we wrote some sizeable cheques, put them in envelopes addressed to various ministries, and sealed them. And that's when I felt the wave of relief. We had broken the spell that money had cast over me. It freed me from the worries that had consumed me. I actually felt reckless and giddy—"God, please catch us, because we just took a crazy leap of faith."