Sunday, 19 February 2017

Meeting God


Our reading today is a story of how a person meets God and discovers joy.

Philip has been in Samaria, up here, and God tells him to go south because there is someone he wants him to meet. I note in passing that all of this happens because Philip is obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, not just once but twice (v26, 29).

Martin Lloyd Jones writes, “Now there are leadings such as that . . . If you read the history of the saints, God's people throughout the centuries and especially the history of revivals, you will find that this is something which is perfectly clear and definite―men have been told by the Holy Spirit to do something; they knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to them, and it transpired that it obviously was his leading. It seems clear to me that if we deny such a possibility we are again guilty of quenching the Spirit”

But that is for another talk.

But because Philip is obedient he goes to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza and he meets a foreign VIP, the man who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ethiopia.

We don’t know his name.
He may have been a Jew. Or more likely, a Gentile god-fearer.
Given where he came from, he was almost certainly black. The New Testament is skin colour blind, although sadly we as God’s people are not.

1.      What we do know is that he was a man who is hungry for God

He had come from Ethiopia (Meroe was the capital of the Kandace, today in Southern Sudan) to Jerusalem to worship. That was a long journey, 2438km – including a ferry trip - according to Google maps.
It was not insignificant, and I calculate it would have taken him at least 15 days to go and 15 days to get back.

He would only have done that if he was serious about God.

And he really was hungry for God.  
He had a scroll of Isaiah. Even  though he was a wealthy man that would have been extremely expensive. He was reading it on his way home. And he was asking questions.

That is when I know that someone is hungry for God. They do ask questions. They want to come along to Christianity Explored courses; or they want to meet up to talk these things through.

And the Ethiopian knows that the passage he is reading – it is Isaiah 53 – is significant, but he doesn’t understand it. And he wants to find out who it is speaking about.

So when Philip turns up, runs beside the chariot and asks him if he understands what he is reading, the Ethiopian invites him to come up and explain it to him.
That is really big of him. This is a VIP, with servants and a bodyguard. He is used to being in control, to issuing orders. And yet he is prepared to admit that he doesn’t know something.

Here is a man who is hungry for an encounter with God. 

2.      We know that he meets with God

a)      He meets God through reading the bible

It is a fascinating passage that he is reading.

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth’ (Isaiah 53.7-8).

This is not a passage describing a God of power, or a God who gives success and status to people, or even a passage telling us how to have peace in this world.
This is a passage describing someone who has chosen to be silent in the face of injustice. It describes someone who is humiliated, and someone who is slaughtered.

I wonder what it was about the passage that struck him?
Afterall, the Ethiopian was clearly a man of power, success, status and privilege.
But I wonder if, when he was in Jerusalem among lighter skinned people, he experienced discrimination. I wonder if he had experienced rejection because of his skin colour.
And as a eunuch he was somebody who would understand only too well what it meant to have no descendants.

And this is pure conjecture.
But I wonder if what really struck him was the fact that this person in Isaiah 53 voluntarily and silently submits to injustice, to his destiny and even to death.

He knows the reason why the person does it – it comes in the first part of the chapter. It was so that the one could take away the sins of the many.
‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Is 53.4-6)

But what he really wants to know is who would do that?
Who loves so much that he is not prepared simply to die for someone (that happens. Parents die for their children; lovers die for their beloved; men and women die for their country), but he wants to know who is prepared not simply to die, but to be shamed, falsely accused, have a posterity stripped away from them and then be slaughtered for someone?

That is so much harder.

And so he asks Philip, Who was it? Was it the prophet? Isaiah himself?
And Philip, we are told, beginning with this passage, tells him about Jesus.

He tells him about how Jesus chose to become one of us, to share in our experience. He told him of how Jesus took onto himself our sin, our rebellion against God – he took it into himself in order to deal with it. As the prophet foretold, he took onto himself the penalty for our sin, eternal separation from God, so that whoever turns to him can find forgiveness, acceptance, healing and the possibility to live a new life, not against God, but for God.

And so the Ethiopian meets with God through the bible.

I wonder whether you have known God meeting you through a passage of the bible.
You may not have understood it, but it has gripped you. And through it you have been drawn to Jesus.

It may have been Isaiah 53. Some friends of ours have helped translate the bible into one of the languages in one of the .. stans that were part of the former Soviet Union. They write, 'We will never forget checking the book of Isaiah: having deeply considered the 53rd chapter we with one accord stood up and the translator read it out and we all prayed. it was a spine tingling moment.'

Or I think of Jeremy who died last week. In his last 2 or 3 weeks, he told me how he was struggling with assurance. And then, last week, a few days before he died, he spoke of how the chorus, ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace’ had suddenly come to him. And it had lit him up. He knew it was OK. I guess that is not a specific bible verse, but it is what 2 Cor 4.8 states, ‘we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal’.

And I remember about 26 years ago, when I was in a very dark place, not doubting the existence of God, but doubting whether I belonged to him, how that verse from John 6.37, ‘Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away’ came into my mind. And I grabbed it, and I said, ‘Lord Jesus, I don’t understand this, but I’ve come to you, and you have promised that you will never drive me away’.

We meet with God through reading the bible.

Most of us have bibles at home. Yet how many of us, I wonder, try to make a commitment to reading them daily?

Chrysostom writes of this passage, ​“Consider, I ask you, what a great effort it was not to neglect reading even while on a journey, and especially while seated in a chariot. Let this be heeded by those people who do not even deign to do it at home but rather think reading the Scriptures is a waste of time, claiming as an excuse their living with a wife, conscription in military service, caring for children, attending to domestics and looking after other concerns, they do not think it necessary for them to show any interest in reading the holy Scriptures.”

He's making a point. If this man reads the bible in a chariot, we have no excuse for not reading it when we are at home.

b)      He meets God through Philip

He meets God because Philip explains what the passage means to him.

We can meet God when we are on our own.
I guess if it was today the Ethiopian could have got out his phone and asked Siri or google, ‘Who is Isaiah 53 speaking about?’ I tried it and it was sort of helpful!
And of course we can meet God on our own because he does speak to us through our reading and listening to podcasts and personal bible study. And he does speak to us through our hearts, through promptings, dreams and visions.

That can happen, but God has made us so that we need each other.

That is why we come together. It is why small groups are so important in our Christian life, or meeting together regularly with someone to pray with you. It is why prayer ministry is powerful, when people pray for you.


The other week I had done something that was not right. I could easily have confessed my sin to God and believed his promise that I was forgiven. But I chose to meet with a Christian friend and confess my sin to him. He prayed for me and I experienced an amazing sense of God washing me through with his Spirit. I met with God.

Sartre declared that ‘Hell is the other person’. That is only true if we want to be our own little god and do whatever we want. Other people limit us and challenge our freedom.
But God has created us so that we need the other person, and so that we meet him through other people.

And yes we can worship on our own, and we can have our personal prayer time, but if that is all we do then we will be isolated and impoverished. We really do need each other. And we meet God in the other and through the other.

And God has so arranged it that the only two ‘religious’ things that he has commanded us to do are to be baptised and to share the bread and wine. And we cannot do either of those things on our own.

c)      He meets God in baptism

It is after he is baptised that the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.

The language used is helpful. They both ‘went down’ into the water. When we are baptised we identify ourselves with Jesus in his silence, suffering and death.

For the Ethiopian this would have been a big thing.

Some of you will know the story of Naaman who came to the prophet Elisha to be healed. Elisha tells Naaman to go to the river Jordan and wash in it 7 times. Naaman is furious. He too is a foreign VIP, the commander in chief of the king of Aram. He expects Elisha to come out and do something dramatic, and not tell him to simply wash in the local river. And it is only when he is prepared to humble himself, and to do what Elisha says, that he is healed.

The Ethiopian eunuch has no hesitation. He asks to be baptised. He wants to ‘go down’ into the water; he wants to identify himself with this Jesus who suffered injustice and who had no human descendants, and yet who suffered and died in silence. He wants to identify himself with this Jesus who died in his place, for his sins.

And as he ‘comes up’ out of the water, he knows that he is forgiven and accepted. He knows that as he returns to his home, he will not be on his own. God will be with him.
According to Irenaeus it was this Ethiopian who founded the church in Ethiopia, a church which still continues to this day.

Perhaps you have never been baptised.
I urge you to receive baptism if you want to meet with God. Speak with one of the staff team.
I know that people get embarrassed – how can I be baptised now? Isn’t that for children? I’m far too old.
But it isn’t just for children; it is for everyone – and increasingly it is adults who are baptised today. So ignore the embarrassment. To be honest, that is the least of your concerns. When you are baptised you are identifying yourself with Jesus in his brokenness. You recognise that he went as an innocent, in silence, falsely accused to the cross for you. You recognise that he hung on that cross and he died for you. You recognise that he was separated from God for you. You recognise that although it should have been you hanging there, in his love for you he took your place.

That is a big thing to admit. But it is what will open the door to allow you to meet with God. And it is what will bring you joy.

We meet with God through his word, the bible; through his people; and through baptism and communion.

Perhaps we have been baptised; perhaps we have been faithfully coming along to church or to small group; perhaps we have been reading the bible – and yet we seem to have lost touch with God. And we long to meet him, or more accurately, for him to meet with us.

Perhaps these verses can give us one further piece of help.

The Ethiopian eunuch met with God when he opened his bible and when he asked Philip for help.
But joy came after he got out of his chariot, after he ‘went down’ into the water, after he identified himself with the silent falsely accused suffering Christ.

We are not going to meet with God if we try to go in the opposite direction, not down but up. We will never meet with God if we try to vindicate ourselves or prove ourselves or justify ourselves. We will never meet with God if we think we can do it all on our own.
But we will meet with him when we ‘go down’, when we identify ourselves with the Jesus of Isaiah 53, when we recognise our need for forgiveness and mercy and strength. And we will meet with him, when – like Philip - we are guided by him and speak of him to those who want to hear, and are silent before those who ridicule or persecute us.


James writes to those who long to meet God, “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4.8-10)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Why we should introduce people to Jesus



Our fifth and final vision statement is that we seek to introduce people to Jesus.

There are many different things we differ on: prefer different styles of worship, attitude to tradition, music, how long sermons should be! Maybe we have different attitudes to our sources of authority – Bible, Church, experience and reason – and we will combine them in different ways. We will have different views on politics: Brexit, human sexuality, the environment, Donald Trump

But I hope that there is something that we do agree on:

And that is that at the heart of our community, and at the centre of our individual life, and our life together, is faith in Jesus Christ, who loved us, was crucified and who rose from the dead.

We are Christ-ians. We are the people of Jesus Christ. And we gather because of him, around him and to meet him.

And because of that:

1.      We are people who have a shared motive.

Paul writes, ‘For Christ’s love compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died, and he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’. (2 Cor 5.14-15)

I would hope that we are people who are motivated, ‘compelled’ by the love of Christ

Jesus loved us and he died for us.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three stories about a good shepherd who seeks his lost sheep, about a woman who turns her house upside down, and about a Father who runs to his younger son and who, if you notice from the passage, goes out to the older brother.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, left heaven and came ‘out’ to earth to die for us, even to become sin for us (v21), because he loved us.

He looks at us, at you, and he sees deep within you that kernel, seed of God createdness, the image of God, of who you were truly made to be. And he delights in that, and he longs for you to be set free from all that is preventing you from becoming that person; and he desires deep intimacy, the closest of friendship, with you.

But it is our pride and fear and hate and self-centredness and perverted desires and prejudice and unforgiveness that have built up a wall that separates us from God.

If we think about the story of the Prodigal son then it was the younger son’s desire for a life that was lived apart from his father, and it was his rebellion against the father, that destroyed his relationship with the father. He believed that the father was the one who was preventing him from having a good time.

But the older son was equally cut off from the father. It was his pride which destroyed his relationship with the father. He is so obsessed with his status and his rights and his stuff. In his own mind he thinks that he deserves it, he has worked for it and his younger brother does not deserve it. He does not realise that everything that he has and in fact everything that the Father has is his (‘all that I have is yours and you are always with me’), as a gift.

St Patrick got this; he was captured by grace. He wrote in his confession, “And I am certain of this: I was a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall”.

We’re cut off from God. Some of us are like the younger son, far off, in a state of rebellion against God, eating pigswill. We are a stone, dead, trampled in the mud. And some of us are like the older son, cut off from God by our morality and our attempts to justify ourselves. We cannot receive the free gift of mercy.

But Jesus, in his love for us, on the cross, paid the price for our sins. He runs to greet the one who has rebelled but who is turning back. He goes out to the one who refuses to come in.

I have here a piece of concrete. It comes from the Berlin Wall. From 1961 to 1989 this was part of the wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin. They said that they built it to protect their people and keep the West out. In fact, what it really did, was keep their people in. It was a prison wall. It separated families and it divided a nation. And then, in November 1989, it was torn down, block of concrete by block of concrete.

The death of Jesus broke down the wall that separated us from God - so that men and women could come to know God. It is when we realise just what it cost God to ‘go out’ to us who refused to ‘come in’, that we begin to realise the depth and the extent of the love of God.

And Jesus died for me.
And he died for you.

We are told that ‘one died for all’ (v14,15).
So, that also includes Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists. It includes the ‘don’t knows’ and the ‘can’t care lesses’. It embraces the atheists.  Verses 14 and 15 are a universalist text. They are not saying that everybody is saved: God respects each person’s decision, even if accepting it means breaking his heart, but they are saying that the love of God is universal. It is for each person.

And it is that love of Christ which must motivate us:
Not just the love of Christ for me – but the love of Christ for you.

Why are you so precious and valuable?
Why do I need to take you seriously?
Why should I be prepared to lay down my life so that you might be reconciled to God?

Not because I love you. I’m not compelled by my love. My love is pretty pathetic. But because Christ loves you.


And that leads me on to my second thing that we have in common (and I am only going to mention two!)

2.      We have a common task.

‘And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5.19)

The story goes that a young man applied for a job as an usher at a theatre. The manager asked him, "What would you do in case a fire breaks out?"
The young man answered, "Don't worry about me. I'd get out OK."

That, I’m afraid, is what we often think about our faith. It is personal and between God and me. And I’ll be OK, and that is really all that matters.
But that is not OK. We have been given a commission, a task: to be reconcilers. To reconcile men and women to God. To introduce people to Jesus so that they can be put right with God

Look at the passion of Paul in these verses. ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God’. (2 Cor 5.20).

Listen, he is saying to us, if God loves people, if God so longs for people to come to know him, to live for him and with him, and if Christ was prepared to die for them – what are you going to do about it?

Evangelism, the sharing of the good news that because of Jesus’ death, our friends, our family, our colleagues can know that they need no longer live for themselves, but for God, and know intimacy with God is not something to be left to the Christian fanatics.

You certainly don’t need to do it any particular way.
You are very right to be wary of a glib or exploitative message.
But if we have begun to grasp the eensiest-teensiest bit of the love that God has for all people, then you like Paul will implore people to be reconciled to God.

You may have heard me speak of Tony Rutherford, who was a member of this church. He died last year. He was in hospital, and he had quite a remarkable last few days. Every time I went, he would keep on repeating the word - ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’. And then he said, ‘I have let people down. If I had known it was as amazing as this, I would have told everyone about Jesus’.

St Mary’s has, for many years, been known as an evangelical church. People have asked me what that means. And they are a bit cagey. Perhaps we have been put off by the American tele-evangelist.
But evangelical literally means ‘good news’, and when we say that we are an evangelical church it means that we are a good news church.

We are a good news church because we can tell people that the seen, the physical, is not all that there is. That is good news for people who suffer dreadfully, for those facing death, for those who are despised and ridiculed and mocked, for those who have everything stripped away from them here.

We are a good news church because we can tell people of a God who loved them, and who shows us that love by going to the cross and dying for us. We can tell them that they are beloved.

We are a good news church because we can tell people who are burdened with sin that there is forgiveness. It tells us in black and white, ‘he doesn’t hold our sins against us’. And the brilliant thing is that because you know that there is a God who loves you, despite all that you have done, you can begin to be real with yourself, and face up to the muck and deal with the muck.

We are a good news church because we can tell people that there is a new way of living. We can escape from the self-centred prison that we have built around us, and we can begin to live for him who loved us. We can become new people. When we turn to him a new beginning explodes into life in us.

We are a good news church because we can declare that because Jesus rose from the dead, death is not the end

I appreciate that this is not the sort of sermon that people expect from our pulpits.

In the last couple of years I have been away to several cathedrals (I'm not speaking about our neighbours). I have heard three sermons. They were high quality and memorable. The first told me to be good. The second told me to be political correct and respect all people. The third told me to be less selfish. It is what we expect from church.

Forgive me, but I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be good. I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be politically correct and respect people. I will not use this pulpit to tell you to be less selfish.
The thing is, I know you and I know myself. I know that I cannot be good. I know that I do not respect all people irrespective of who they are. I know that I cannot be less selfish.

And if I preach those things, all I will be doing is make those of you who think you are good and do respect all people and are not selfish, smug. Or I will be adding further burdens on those of you who know you cannot do it. And you will be crushed.

But what I will do is to use this pulpit to preach Jesus and to urge you to be reconciled to God. Because Jesus knows you and he still loves you; he died for you; and he longs for you to come to him, to know him, to receive his Spirit and to become a new person. It doesn’t matter whether you have been coming here for 1 year or 5 years or 35 years. Ask him into your life. Ask him to become your Lord, your rescuer and your closest companion. You won’t become perfect overnight. You will constantly need to depend on his mercy and grace. But you will begin to change and become like him. 

So we are a church who I pray will firstly be motivated, not by our own love, because that is pretty weak, but by the love of Jesus.
And I pray that as we are set on fire by God, and as we see his love for people, we will join with Paul in being ambassadors for Christ – urging people to be reconciled to God.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The command to love and the gift of love


This evening we begin a new series looking at several passages from the Bible about love

And today we begin with a really important passage: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and ... love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22.37-40)

It is a command that appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John doesn't include it, but he does include Jesus saying, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 15.12)

1. Love is the rock on which all the other commandments stand

There was a debate between the school of Shammai and Hillel about whether the law could be summarised.
A story is told that a man went to Rabbi Shammai and asked him if he could teach him the whole of the law while standing on one leg. The Rabbi smacked him round the face for being so impudent. The man then asked Rabbi Hillel the same question, and Hillel, standing on one leg, said, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind."
That declaration, that God is the only God, that he is the God of Israel, and that we are to love him, is a quote from Deuteronomy 6.4-5. It is called the Shema, and it is repeated each day by faithful Jews.

Jesus adds something to the Shema. He is probably not the first to do so. But he adds two verses from Leviticus 19 (v18 and v34) in which the command is 'to love your neighbour as yourself'.
That does not mean, as many people think, that Jesus is saying that we have to first learn to love ourselves before we can love our neighbour. Rather I think – when you look at the passage in Leviticus – he is saying that we are to love our neighbour as if they were one of our very own. So Leviticus 19.34, ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’.

And I think what it is saying is that there is a deep connection between us and our neighbour. If we despise or reject our neighbour, we are despising or rejecting ourselves. If we love our neighbour, because our neighbour is like us, we are loving ourselves.

So there are these two great commands to love. And this love for God and love for neighbour is the summary of the law.

In Matthew 7.12 Jesus says something quite similar – although he speaks in terms of obedience and action, rather than in terms of love: 'In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets' (Matt 7.12)

He is not taking the 612 commands and the 365 prohibitions of the law and saying that they are now redundant in the face of the command to love. Rather he is saying that love of God and love of neighbour is the hook on which all those other laws hang. It is the rock on which they stand. If we want to know how to correctly interpret all those other laws and commands then we need to understand them in the light of this command to love.

2. Love is about what motivates us. It is not just about the things we do.

One commentary interprets this passage like this: "It is obvious, however, that the use of the verb ἀγαπήσεις, "you shall love," does not mean the same thing in both places. In neither case is love construed as an emotion. Love for one's neighbour means acting toward others with their good, their well-being, their fulfilment, as the primary motivation and goal of our deeds. Such love is constant and takes no regard of the perceived merit or worth of the other person. Love of God, on the other hand, is to be understood as a matter of reverence, commitment, and obedience"

I am not convinced that is right.

I don’t think that we should try to take emotion, or delight and desire, out of love. If Jesus had wanted us to serve God or be committed to him, he would have said that the great command was to 'Obey the Lord your God'. If he had wanted us to act towards the other with their good and well-being as our primary motivation, he could have said 'Serve your neighbour'. But he chooses to use the word ‘love’.

[When Luke records this passage there is only one verb: 'Love the Lord your God .. and your neighbour as yourself', and I think we have to take it that the love we show God is the same kind of love that we are to show our neighbour.]

Love is about seeing the other person as God sees them; seeing not just the physical but the eternal in them. And love is about seeing the other as, like us, created by God with a potential divine dignity and eternal destiny. It is about delighting in them and it is about desire. Not physical desire, but desire for an eternal soul union with them.

There are two main Greek words for love: agape and eros, from which we get our word erotic love. The New Testament uses the word agape and not eros when it speaks of love. But that is not because there is no element of desire in their understanding of the word agape.
When the Jewish fathers translated the Hebrew into Greek, they used the word agape to describe the desire love, erotic love, that we read about in the Song of Solomon.

Love is not just about praxis, what we do. Love is also about our motivation. It is about what we delight in and what we desire.

So when the bible speaks of the divine love it is speaking not only of what God does, but of why God does what he does.
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3.16)
‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5.9)
Jesus tells us, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13), but he then showed us what it means. He died for us in the certainty of resurrection, because he delighted in us and so that we could be reconciled to God and to him.

In Hebrews 12.4 we are told that Jesus suffered the shame of the cross 'for the joy set before him'.
What was that joy?
The joy of calling those who were his enemies his brothers and sisters.
Why?
Because he delights in us, and he wants us to be his friends.

So when Jesus here says that we are to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, he is saying that we are to see God as God is and we are to see our neighbour as God sees them, as people who are similar to us; and we are to delight in God and we are delight in people made in his image. And we are to desire eternal union with God, and eternal soul union with others in God.

Forgive me. I am making this quite complex, when it doesn’t need to be.

This is about what drives us.

What are the desires that motivate us?
There is the story told of the man whose greatest desire was to improve his golf handicap. He looked at that ranking in the club house and he longed to go up the board. One day he came home after a day at the golf course, and his wife asked him how it had been. 'Dreadful', he replied, 'Fred had a heart attack on the third hole. And it just got worse. Hit ball, drag Fred. Hit ball, drag Fred'.

What are our desires? The desire for beauty, truth, stimulation, friendship, wishing that others will think well of us, the satisfaction of our immediate physical cravings (for food or sex or drink or some other high).


The challenge of Deuteronomy 6 and of Matthew 22 is that we need to put love for God, delight for God, and delight for other people (who are created like us) at the very centre of our being.

We are to love him 'with all our heart, soul and mind'.

The ancients understood the heart as being the seat of all desire, the mind the seat of all reason, and the soul the seat of the consciousness.
Our mind needs to be directed towards God. In Matthew 16, Peter tries to persuade Jesus not to go ahead with the crucifixion. Jesus replies: 'You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things'. (Matt 16.23)
Our heart needs to be directed towards God. In Matthew 6.19ff, Jesus says that where our treasure is, there our heart will be; and later, you cannot serve two masters, for you will hate one and love the other.

Plato argues that the soul is what controls the body. It consists of our mind and our heart. The desires are like horses, and the mind is like a chariot. The mind, the chariot, is trying to steer the horses, the desires; but they are constantly pulling in different directions. One wants to go this way, and the other that way. And what we end up is a chariot that goes everywhere and nowhere!

What we are commanded here is to be single minded in our delight for God and the things for God and in our desire for them. It is to have our heart and our head set on the same thing. It is a charge to be single focussed.

I am told that the reason that lion tamers take a stool into the arena with the lion is not so that they can stand taller. Apparently, in case of trouble, they approach the lion with the stool legs facing the lion. The lion apparently does not know which leg to focus on, and the tamer can get out fast!

So the command to love God with heart, soul and mind is the command to be single minded, not just in our obedience of God, but in our delight of him and in our desire for him.

3.      This is an impossible command

How can you possibly tell someone who they are to love?

But then, all the great commands of Jesus are impossible! He commands us to not be afraid, not to be anxious, to be at peace. He commands us to trust. He commands us to have faith. He commands us to be perfect. He commands us to rejoice!

I can’t do any of those things by will. I can sing or say things in praise of God, but I cannot order myself to rejoice.

And these commands, including the command to love, are commands which drive us to our knees.

Love is a gift from God, but it is a gift that he longs to give. And we simply need to recognise that we do not love God or love our neighbour, and ask God to give us the gift.

St Augustine, who wrote a great deal about love, tells us that we should love love. If we love, desire, this kind of love then we desire God.

And love is like the Holy Spirit and wisdom and faith. God promises that if we ask, and if we know that is really what we do desire, then he will give us the gift of love.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

On the work of reconciliation

A sermon preached at Bury St Edmunds' Churches Together Service to mark the beginning of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, January 2017



There is something very special about services like this.
Opportunity to gather together as Christians from different churches in this town.

Although it does remind me of the committee set up to decide what denomination God would be when he returned. The Catholic said he would definitely be Catholic because they were the true church. The Methodist spoke of how he would be Methodist because of the singing. The Baptist said that clearly he would be Baptist because they were so right on believers baptism. And the Anglican after a long silence said, ‘But I don’t really understand why he needs to change?’

Many different things we disagree on: styles of worship, attitude to tradition, liturgy, how long sermons should be! Different attitudes to our sources of authority – Bible, Church, experience and reason – and we will all combine them in different ways. We will have different views on politics, Brexit, human sexuality, pacifism, the environment, Trump (his election does make the game of top trumps slightly awkward and a bit political!).

But I hope that there is something that we do agree on:

And that is that at the very heart of the communities where we worship, and at the very centre of our individual lives is faith in Jesus Christ, who loved us, was crucified and who rose from the dead.

We are Christ-ians. We are the people of Jesus Christ. And we have gathered because of him, around him and to meet him.

1.      We are people who have a shared motive.

Paul writes, ‘For Christ’s love compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died, and he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’. (2 Cor 5.14-15)

And I would hope that we are people who are beginning to be motivated, ‘compelled’ by the love of Christ

Jesus loved us and he died for us.

He is the good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep.
He is the woman turning her house upside down to find the lost coin.
He is the Father who runs to his younger son and who, if you notice from the passage, goes out to the older brother.
(I wonder if there is a bit of a Trinitarian structure there)

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, left heaven and came ‘out’ to earth to die for us, even to become sin for us (v21), because he loved us.

He looks at us, at you, and he sees deep within you that kernel, seed of God createdness, the image of God, of who you were truly made to be. And he delights in that, and he longs for you to be set free from all that is preventing you from becoming that person; and he desires deep intimacy, the closest of friendship, with you.

But it is our pride and fear and hate and self-centredness and perverted desires and prejudice and unforgiveness that have built up a wall that separates us from God.

If we think about the story of the Prodigal son, and we assume that the Father represents God and the sons represent us, then it was the younger son’s desires for a life that was lived apart from his Father, it was his rebellion against the Father, that destroyed his relationship with the Father. He believed that the Father was the one who was preventing him from having a good time.

But the older son was equally cut off from the Father. It was his pride which destroyed his relationship with the Father. He is so obsessed with his status and his rights and his stuff. In his own mind he thinks that he deserves it, he has worked for it and his younger brother does not deserve it. He does not realise that everything that he has and in fact everything that the Father has is his (‘all that I have is yours and you are always with me’), as a gift.

St Patrick got this; he was captured by grace. He wrote in his confession, “And I am certain of this: I was a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall”.

We’ve built up the wall. We’re cut off from God. Some of us are like the younger son, far off, in a state of rebellion against God, eating pigswill. And some of us are like the older son, cut off from God by our morality and our attempts to justify ourselves. We cannot receive the free gift of mercy.

But Jesus, in his love for us, on the cross, paid the price for our sins. He smashed the wall down. He runs to greet the one who has rebelled but who is turning back. He goes out to the one who refuses to come in.

I have here a piece of concrete. It comes from the Berlin Wall. From 1961 to 1989 this was part of the wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin. They said that they built it to protect their people and keep the West out. In fact, what it really did, was keep their people in. It was a prison wall. It separated families and it divided a nation. And then, in November 1989, it was torn down, block of concrete by block of concrete.

The death of Jesus broke down the wall that separated us from God - so that men and women could come to know God. It is when we realise just what it cost God to ‘go out’ to us who refused to ‘come in’, that we begin to realise the depth and the extent of the love of God.

And Jesus died for me.
But Jesus also, on the cross, died for you. He died for the Catholics, for the Methodists, for the Reformed, for the independent and non-denominational fellowships, for the Pentecostals and Baptists and Salvationists and Quakers. He even died for the Anglicans.

We are told that ‘one died for all’ (v14,15). So, that also includes Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists. It includes the ‘don’t knows’ and the ‘can’t care lesses’. It embraces the atheists. Verses 14 and 15 are a universalist text. They are not saying that everybody is saved: God respects each person’s decision, even if accepting it means breaking his heart, but they are saying that the love of God is universal. It is for each person.

And it is that which must motivate us: Not just the love of Christ for me – but the love of Christ for you.

Why are you so precious and valuable?
Why do I need to take you seriously?
Why should I be prepared to lay down my life so that you might be reconciled to God?

Not because I love you. But because Christ loves you.

And that leads me on to my second thing that we have in common (and I am only going to mention two!)

2.      We have a common task.

‘And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5.19)

The story goes that a young man applied for a job as an usher at a theatre. The manager asked him, "What would you do in case a fire breaks out?"
The young man answered, "Don't worry about me. I'd get out OK."

That, I’m afraid, is what we often think about our faith. It is personal and between God and me. And I’ll be OK, and that is really all that matters.
But that is not OK. We have been given a commission, a task: to be reconcilers. To reconcile men and women to God.

Look at the passion of Paul in these verses. ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God’. (2 Cor 5.20).

Listen, he is saying to us, if God loves people, if God so longs for people to come to know him, to live for him and with him, and if Christ was prepared to die for them – what are you going to do about it?

Evangelism, the sharing of the good news that because of Jesus’ death, our friends, our family, our colleagues can know that they need no longer live for themselves, but for God, and know intimacy with God is not something to be left to those of us who are on the lunatic fringe of the church.

You certainly don’t need to do it our way.
You are very right to be wary of a glib or exploitative message.
But if we have even begun to grasp the eensiest-teensiest bit of the love of God for all people, then you like Paul will implore people to be reconciled to God.

Last year I had the privilege of visiting Tony Rutherford in the last week or so of his life in the hospital. He had quite an amazing journey. Every time I went, and it wasn’t the medication, he would be saying ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’. And then he said, ‘I have let people down. If I had known it was as amazing as this, I would have told everyone about Jesus’.

This really is something that we do better together (to use a phrase that is slightly out of fashion) rather than on our own.

One of the things that is quite remarkable about Bury St Edmunds are the number of initiatives run by Christians from different churches working together – seeking to bring reconciliation to people. I think of, and forgive me if I don’t mention you, Bury Town Pastors, CAP (and the job club), Storehouse and Gatehouse, Bury Drop in, Sporting 87, Bury Christian Youth, Traidcraft, the St John’s Centre, Christian Aid, Crossways. And this year there is the ‘Who Cares’ initiative, when we are all encouraged to ask our people, and to ask those with whom we come into contact, a very simple question, ‘What hurts the most?’ – and it would be great to see you at the launch event in St Mary’s on 25 February.

And it is also when we work together that we can bring greater pressure on the council or pool our resources so that there is adequate provision for those who are homeless, or who struggle with mental health issues, or who have been rolled out of the safety net onto the floor. And I really do pray that as Christians in this town and region we will be known as people who do care, who tear down walls, who go to people who are outside and who actively look for what unites rather than what divides.

But I also pray that in all these works of reconciliation, as we bring people together, we will not lose the sight of the need for that greater reconciliation that Paul writes about so passionately here: the reconciliation of a human being with God. It would be so great if every church represented here was running a course for enquirers – and if you are not big enough to do that on your own, to go into partnership with someone else. And it would be fantastic if we were each praying for the neighbouring churches course.

It was unfashionable to say this, although in an increasingly aggressive secular state I am not so sure now, but it really is at the heart of what it is all about. God loves people; he delights in them, and he longs for intimacy with them. And when a person is reconciled to God, they then begin to have the resources to be reconciled to others. And we are God’s ambassadors charged with the task of teaching Jesus and urging people to be reconciled to God.

It is why Jesus came ‘out’ from heaven; it is why he died on the cross and this is the shared task that is at the heart of our unity. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Why the Bible is so important.



The second declaration on our vision statement is that we seek to teach the Bible in a way that is relevant to everyday life.

I would like to look at the passage that we have had read from 2 Timothy. It is a letter written by Paul, an experienced minister of the gospel, to Timothy, a younger man who is pastor of a church in Ephesus. And our verses today tell us why the Bible, why Scripture, is so important.

Of course, we must remember that when Paul speaks to Timothy about ‘Holy Scripture’, he is primarily speaking of what we know as the Old Testament, the first two thirds of our Bible. However, some of the earliest writings of the first apostles had also come to be recognised as ‘Scripture’. So, for instance, Peter writes to a congregation about Paul’s writings. He says, ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures’ (1 Peter 3.16).  And very quickly the Church came to accept the books that we have in our New Testament as Scripture.

So what Paul writes of Scripture here, can be taken to apply to the whole of what we have as our Bible.   

And Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt and become convinced of (2 Tim 3.14). And Paul urges him to continue to be committed to Scripture.

And he gives him 4 reasons


1.      The Bible is God breathed (v16)

We need that conviction today. When you pick up this book, you are picking up the word of God. We often say it at the end of a Bible reading: ‘This is the word of the Lord’.
This is inspired – literally ‘breathed in’.

That does not mean that this is auto-writing.
Some people would try to persuade us that they are channels for someone who has died, and that they are writing down the very words that these people are giving. They put a pen in their hand, their brain in neutral and just write. Apart from being wrong – the Bible makes it clear that we must not even attempt to get in touch with the ‘other side’ – God does not work that way.

He doesn’t override our feelings, intellect and decisions. He works through our feelings, intellect and decisions.
So these are the words of God – and we can see through them to God - but they are also the words of Paul – and we can see through them to the person of Paul.
We can see the heart of Paul, the passion of Paul. We can also see his frustration or anger or disappointment or brokenness.
God does not override Paul’s personality or circumstances.
He uses Paul’s personality and circumstances.

It is like what we believe about Jesus.
We believe Jesus was fully 100% human. When you look at him you see a human being living a perfect life. But we also believe that he is 100% divine. When you look at him, you see 100% God. So with the Bible. It is 100% the words of Paul and Peter and Matthew and Luke and Isaiah. But it is also 100% the word of God.  

This is no ordinary book. When the Queen was given a Bible at her coronation, the moderator of the Church of Scotland said to her, “Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

Now I know that there are many who would challenge that. They would argue that science has disproved the Bible, that we can never know how to interpret the Bible, that it is sexist or homophobic or seditious. For 70 years it was banned in the former Soviet Union. It is still a banned book in North Korea, in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. And people have constantly tried to discredit the Bible: they misquote or take verses out of context and try to show how foolish or unacceptable they are.

And I would never deny that there are challenges. There are bits of the Bible that are hard to understand. There are teachings that challenge the thinking of our contemporary society. And we need some humility in this, and recognise that people have used the Bible to justify things that we now realise the Bible can never be used to justify: things like the crusades, the burning of heretics, slavery or apartheid or the justification of turning women into objects who are there to satisfy men. And people have handled the Bible in an offensive way – even though the Bible itself teaches us to treat all people ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3.15).

St Augustine said, “The Scriptures are holy, they are truthful, they are blameless.… So we have no grounds at all for blaming Scripture if we happen to deviate in any way, because we haven’t understood it. When we do understand it, we are right. But when we are wrong because we haven’t understood it, we leave it in the right. When we have gone wrong, we don’t make out Scripture to be wrong, but it continues to stand up straight and right, so that we may return to it for correction” (Sermons 23.3).

We really don’t need to defend the Bible. Spurgeon said, “Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it and it will defend itself.”
And my challenge to people who have heard all this horrendous stuff about the Bible is very simple. Read it for yourself. Begin in the New Testament. Read one of the accounts of the life of Jesus.
And when you read, pray; ask God, if he is there, to speak to you through the words.
And don’t read it to pick holes in it; don’t read it as an academic exercise; read it – even if you don’t believe it – as if it were the lively oracles of God. Read it with humility. Read it as if it were ‘God breathed’

2.      The Bible can make us wise for salvation

The Bible does not save us.
Possession of the Bible does not save us – not even of one of those really big old family ones!
Knowledge of the Bible does not save us. There is the story told of the person who, on his death bed, was found reading the Bible and making notes. He said he was cramming for finals.
Being able to quote various verses, or list the books of the OT and NT, or quote the Bible, or know who Karen-Happuch is, will not save us. But if you tell me at the end of the service, it would impress me!

The Bible does not save us. But the Bible makes us wise for salvation.
What saves us is when we listen to the message of the Bible, and put our faith and our trust in the person who the Bible is all about, Jesus Christ.

So, for instance, after his resurrection, when Jesus appears to his followers (they can’t believe that he has risen from the dead), he says to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24.27)

This was a really big thing in Jesus’ teaching. We need to be aware of this. Many of Jesus’ opponents were Bible people. They knew their Bibles. They studied their Bibles. They could quote their Bibles. But Jesus challenges them, ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5.39)

The Bible does not save us. But it is important because it does make us wise so that we can come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. 2 Timothy 3.15 tells us that it makes us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.


3.      The Bible equips us for every good work.

‘All Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man or woman of God is equipped for every good work’ (v16-17)

God, in his word, in the Bible points us to Jesus. He speaks of his coming. He speaks of his kingdom and rule. He tells us his plan and the way that he works. He tells us of Jesus, who he is, the sort of life that he lived, his teaching, his suffering and death and resurrection, his giving of the Spirit, his living in and among his people and his coming again. He tells us of his desire that all people, from all nations, of all creeds, will come to know his love for us.
And God, in his word, the Bible, shows us our brokenness and our need for Jesus to do good works; And as we realise that we cannot do any good work in our own strength, he invites us to come to the One who can help us.
And God, in his word, the Bible, teaches us what the good works are that we are called to do: how we are to live as his people under his rule. It shows us the good life, the way of wisdom: the way of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
And God, in his word, the Bible, gives us examples of people who have done good works. He tells us of men and women who put their faith in the word of God, even in the face of awful opposition. He warns us of the sort of temptations that we will face. He encourages us to continue to be faithful.

And God, in his word, the Bible, reassures us. He speaks of his love and forgiveness, of how he chooses nobodies like us and uses failures like us. He reassures us of his presence and of his power at work in us and for us.

The Bible is described as a hammer and a fire. It breaks open lies and falsehood and shows evil to be evil. (Jeremiah 23.9)
The Bible is described as a rock. A rock on which some stand, and some stumble (1 Peter 2.8)
The Bible is described as a mirror (James 1.23). You read it and you begin to see yourself as you really are, in the light of God.
The Bible is described as a lamp (Psalm 119.105). It shows the way to go, and how to live.
And the Bible is described as a sword (Ephesians 6.17; Hebrews 4.12). We do not have physical weapons in our battle against lies and half-truths. The only thing we have is the Word of God. And all we can do is proclaim the truth.

But that is enough. It is all we need to be equipped to do every good work.


4.      The Bible changes how we live

Paul urges Timothy to hold on to Scripture. ‘As for you’, he says, ‘continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it’. (v14)

I think he is probably speaking of himself and the others from whom Timothy heard about Jesus. In 2 Timothy 1.13, Paul writes, ‘What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus’.

And in the first few verses we read today, Paul reminds Timothy of his teaching, way of life, purpose, faith, patience, love and endurance in suffering.

And so Paul is saying to Timothy: ‘Hold on to Jesus and hold on to Scripture, because you can see from me that this all works’. It is not an antiquated book that is really only of interest to historians. It is not a science textbook putting forward the latest theories. It is not a book of philosophical theory. It is important because it changes how we live. It is about living for God, putting him first, going where he wants you to go, trusting him, being oh so patient with people, learning to grow in love. And it is about living that way in the face of trials – many of which come because we are followers of Jesus.

And it works!

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And Paul in 2 Timothy 4.1-2 urges Timothy to preach the word. To do it in season and out of season, literally to do it in good times and in bad times. He is urged to speak the words of God to his people to correct, rebuke and challenge, to encourage, to give careful instruction.

I am passionate about this, as you probably realise!
I was brought up going to church. But as an older teenager I began to realise that although I was a Christian, it was more a label thing and a social thing. I did not pray and I certainly did not experience God at work in my life. So I made a decision to start to regularly pray and to read and study the Bible. I read through Genesis, linking passages in Genesis with other parts in the Bible. I then read through Luke’s gospel, doing the same. There was no overwhelming experience that I had, but as I did that, I began to become more and more aware of the reality of God, and of the power of God at work in me and through me.

I would urge you to be people who love the word, who seek to get to know the word, who speak the word, who live the word. Our Church (with a capital C) needs men and women who are willing to preach and the teach the word. And sadly, in so many of our churches, it is not happening.

That is why this church unashamedly has a history, a tradition, a legacy of being a Bible teaching church.
It is why today we seek to be a Church which teaches the Bible. If we don’t do that, challenge me.
It is why small groups where we can come together to study the Bible and learn to apply it to our everyday lives are so important.
It is why we urge ourselves and we urge each other to spend time daily with the word of God – using the readings on the notice sheet, using Bible reading notes, using wordlive or Time to Pray or whatever. It is why I would encourage people to use approaches like ‘Dwelling in the Word’ – spending a week or a month or even a year on the same passage - or learning passages of the Bible by heart (why not start with 2 Timothy 3.16-17) and meditating on them during the day or when you are lying awake at night. It is why I would encourage people to go on more serious courses getting to know the Bible, maybe even taking out a year of your life to do so.

In the words of another preacher, and I quote,

“May I urge you – as I always have done, and always will – don’t just listen carefully to what the preacher says, but take time regularly to read the Bible at home as well. This is something I never stop drumming into my friends and acquaintances!
Don’t let anyone make excuses like these: ‘I’m too busy with politics .. I must get on with my job’.. What on earth are you saying? It’s ‘not your business to read the Bible’ because you’ve got too many other things to bother about? But that’s the very reason why you need to read the Bible!
The more worries you have, the more you need the Bible to keep you going!  .. Your wife or husband irritates you, you worry about your children, your enemies are waiting to catch you out, someone you thought was your friend is jealous of you, your neighbour spreads rumours about you or picks quarrels with you, your colleague acts behind your back, someone sues you, you suffer from poverty, you lose your nearest and dearest .. Where can you find a suit of armour, or a castle from which to defend yourself? Where can you find ointment for your wounds, but in the Bible?
Haven’t you noticed how a smith, mason or carpenter, however much is back is against the wall, will never sell or pawn the tools of his trade? If he did, how could he earn his living? That is how we should think of the Bible; just as mallets, hammers, saws, chisels are the tools of the craftsman’s trade, so the books of the prophets and the apostles, and all scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, are the tools of our salvation” (From the sermon ‘On Lazarus’ (third discourse) by John Chrysostom, 350?-407, quoted in Lion Book of Christian Classics, p20)

Those words were spoken by a man called John Chrysostom, and they are as relevant for us today as they were for his listeners 1700 years ago.