Sermon: Jesus, King of sinners

In my latest sermon, preached on 22 January 2017 at St Aldhelm’s Doulting, we look at Mark 1:40 – 2:17. We read about the leper Jesus healed, the paralysed man who was lowered through the roof, and the calling of Levi.

Summary

Donald Trump has been inaugurated as President of the US, and the UK is mid-Brexit, leaving many wondering whether this is a kingdom they want to be part of. Jesus’s kingdom is different, though – it’s full of sinners like you and me. No sin can exclude you. But Jesus also wants us to change, to become more like him. Ultimately, our eternal life must take priority over our earthly life – that’s not to say our earthly life is unimportant, but rather that it’s a matter of priorities. Lord, your kingdom come.

Also, apologies that the audio goes rather quiet for a bit towards the beginning, I had to step away from the mic to hand things to some kids!

2 Peter 1:1-11 – A chain of support

In this, the first in a series of personaly Bible studies in the book of 2 Peter, we begin with a list of qualities that Peter encourages his readers to have, chained together one after the other. I figured it might be interesting to examine what the connection is between these qualities, and how they support each other.

“You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” 2 Peter 1:5-7

But before we get into that, a note about context. This is a letter, and follows the usual pattern for letters of that time. Peter introduces himself and states who he’s writing to, and then gives a bit of a general introduction to the letter before diving into the real meaty stuff. So this first passage probably isn’t what the rest of the letter is going to be about, but serves to encourage his readers to keep reading. That said, it seems very deliberate, so I don’t think we can just pass it off as introductory waffle – it deserves careful analysis. Peter won’t have linked together qualities like this without thinking about it first.

Faith supported by goodness

Faith is what differentiates believers from non-believers. Faith in Jesus is our personal acceptance of Jesus’s gift of forgiveness. It’s more than just accepting something is true, it’s trusting in it even though it’s more wonderful and more mysterious than we could ever understand. But, it would seem, faith on its own can be fragile.

I can remember being a teenager, and struggling a little with faith. All my life I had been taken to church, and I knew all the right answers, and believed in God, and had faith in Jesus’s promise of salvation. But it very rarely seemed to affect my daily life. I would go to school, do my work, have a laugh with my friends, come home, go to bed. Faith didn’t seem particularly relevant all the time. If I’m honest, that’s still true today, to a certain extent, only I’ve swapped school for work!

What Peter is telling us here is that our unquantifiable faith needs to show itself practically as well. It needs to be more than just a warm, comfy feeling on the inside. It needs to go beyond just an inward acceptance of Jesus. Goodness is something other people can see and experience, and it is by definition something active – goodness is ‘done’ to others. If we want our faith to have an impact on our daily life, it needs to be backed up by acts of goodness. It’s no good believing one thing and then doing another. Our faith needs to show itself through our actions, and actively being ‘good’ can strengthen the faith that prompted it.

Goodness supported by knowledge

What is ‘good’, anyway? In today’s age of post-modernity, anything goes, right? What’s right and true for me isn’t necessarily right and true for everyone. And given that Peter was talking about it nearly two thousand years ago, I’m betting this isn’t as new a problem as we might like to think. Goodness is contextual as well, which complicates matters further – what seems right today might be wrong tomorrow. Code that I wrote a few years ago may well have been perfectly accurate and fine at the time, but if I was writing it again today I’d probably do it differently. Words of advice that I gave last year might have been great at the time, but if I said the same thing today I’d get punched in the face. Being good it harder than it sounds.

The key, Peter tells us, is knowledge. Our acts of goodness can only be truly good if we know what we’re doing. And that means we need to make a conscious effort to understand the world around us, to keep ourselves informed, to listen to what people are saying. It’s only by understanding the need that we can work goodness into it.

Knowledge supported by self-control

I’m reminded of Solomon, here. Remember that time when two women came to him claiming a baby was theirs? Solomon’s knowledge of mothers, interpreted through the filter of wisdom, led him to a solution – cut the baby in half, and each woman could have half the baby. But it was self-control that stopped him from actually enacting that solution. He could have made the proclamation as king and had the baby chopped up, to make the point more clearly. But knowledge itself isn’t everything.

I think ego comes into this as well, to an extent. I love to learn new things, and I have to admit there are times when I’ll act as if I know the answer even if I don’t, because I like the feeling of knowing stuff. Sometimes I need to remind myself to keep some self-control, to know when sharing my ‘knowledge’ is useful, and when it might be better to keep quiet! Knowledge without self-control has the potential to be quite damaging.

Self-control supported by endurance

We’re in the middle of the list now, and it’s feeling a little more tenuous, as if Peter is trying desperately to steer his way through these qualities to end up at the right point! Nonetheless, there is something to learn from this connection. Self-control isn’t easy. As a musician, it’s wonderful to be able to hear myself, to hear the contribution that I’m making to the band/orchestra/group I’m playing with. It takes self-control to keep myself humble and not unbalance the whole sound. But it takes endurance to keep that going from start to finish. Endurance means that we can keep that self-control going until its completion. Lacking endurance means that whatever endeavour we were trying to have self-control about would be completely undone.

Endurance supported by godliness

Without this bit, the list of qualities could appear in any self-help book; it’s been about how we can live better lives, be more effective, avoid pitfalls. But what Peter tells us here is that endurance needs to be bolstered by godliness – being like Jesus.

The trouble with endurance is that it’s hard work. Ask any marathon runner and they’ll tell you that you have to push through the pain, drawing on reserves of strength and energy deep within you, to last until the end. But endurance isn’t just about sport. Endurance means staying patient with people even though they wind you up time after time. Endurance means sticking to your principles when you’re being told to do something that isn’t right. But perfect endurance demands more from us than we can give. And this is why being Christ-like is so important.

Jesus, part of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, never acted on his own. For all that he was the Saviour, he drew his strength from that relationship with the triune God. And it’s that strength that Jesus offers to us, too. The Holy Spirit fills us, guides us, reassures us, and helps us to endure what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to bear. It’s only by submitting to God in humility that we can endure all things.

Godliness supported by mutual affection

You can’t love God and hate your neighbour. That’s something Jesus taught us, and there’s good reason for that. The Pharisees loved God, but that love didn’t extend to the people they were meant to be leading, and that’s one of the reasons Jesus laid into them so often! We should love God, yes, but not at the expense of others. We shouldn’t be so wrapped up in our church commitments that we haven’t got time to have a coffee with a lonely friend. We shouldn’t be so concerned about blogging about a Bible study that we forget to spend the evening with our spouse (note to self: finish this quick and go downstairs…). Other people matter. They matter to God, so they should matter to us too. And if Jesus’s message to the Pharisees is anything to go by, our love for God cannot be complete unless we also love the people around us.

Mutual affection supported by love

Finally, Peter tells us that mere ‘affection’ isn’t enough. Love transforms an acquaintance into a friend. Love transforms idle chit-chat into a meaningful conversation. Love transforms sexual attraction into genuine relationship. Love transforms a little into a lot. We can have a lot of great qualities (see above), but if we don’t have love, it all falls apart. If we want to strengthen our faith, Peter tells us that what we need as our foundation is love.

Why?

At the beginning of this post I took an excerpt from the passage, specifically verses 5 to 7. But verse 5 actually starts “For this very reason”. It’s linked to the verses before, where it talks about how Jesus brought us into relationship with God, and has promised us eternal life. That’s what all this is about – eternal life. We know that faith is needed for us to be saved, but through this chain of supporting characteristics Peter reminds us that faith is only possible through love. And that’s quite wonderful, because perfect love is found in Jesus himself, bring us nicely back where we started!

Bible study: Acts 28 – The need for God

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why did the Maltese natives think Paul was a god?

This has to be one of my favourite bits of the Bible. Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta, but survives. Then he gets bitten by a snake, so the natives assume he must be a murderer, and fate has not allowed him to survive after all. But Paul suffers no ill effects, so they assume instead that he must be a god. Now that’s what I call a change of direction!

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions, isn’t it? Even in today’s age, where information is everywhere and the internet provides us with more data than we know what to do with, we still rely so heavily on gut instinct and presumption. We conclude before we have all the facts needed to properly form the conclusion. We judge people before we know them. We condemn people’s actions before we hear the full story. I’m reminded of the various celebrities and important people who have been accused of sexual assault in recent years, some of whom have turned out to be completely innocent. We see the headline, but we don’t read the full article to find out what actually happened. This passage in Acts is a good reminder to take time to form our opinions, and not to rush into a conclusion too soon.

But there’s something deeper, too. These Maltese natives had a concept of God. And in fact most places on earth do, whether they’ve been in contact with the rest of the world or not. No matter how advanced or primitive a society is, they will have a faith structure of some sort. It’s hard-wired into our very being, a God-space in each of us. Some of us try to fill that need with earthly things, but ultimately only God can fill a God-shaped hole.

What happened to all the other Apostles?

We’re at the end of Acts now. Last chapter. The end of the story of the Acts of the Apostles. But wait – what happened to the rest of them? It started off with the Eleven, who became the Twelve (again), and then Paul came on the scene as well, and then the Twelve were forgotten in the wake of all the other faithful believers doing great stuff, and then we ended up just following Paul. The book ends with Paul in house-arrest in Rome. Hardly an ending at all. Where is everyone else?

In fact, this is the last chronological account in the New Testament; the rest are letters (apart from Revelation, which is kind of in a category of its own). Thankfully, we can piece some of the rest of the story together from those letters, along with what we learn in other historical documents of the time, other letters and gospels that are not included in the official canon, and generally-accepted stories passed down by tradition (and that last one is understandably the most contentious of the lot). We know that all the Apostles died, in various ways, most of them killed for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. We know that the other believers scattered through the region all went on believing, and spreading the message of Jesus, and that his followers are still doing that today in every corner of the world. So, in some ways, there is technically no ‘right’ place to finish the book of the Acts of the Apostles, because that story is still being written today. Right now, I’m writing this blog article; that could arguably be in Acts too. It’s a story that includes all of us. No one is too obscure, or too unimportant, or too [insert adjective here] to appear in the story. And that’s what makes the book of Acts so fantastic – it’s OUR story. Yes, it had to have an end, picked somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, because otherwise it would be the longest book in history and impossible to print. But the story it tells includes you. It’s not just the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Believers around the world and throughout history. It’s the ongoing story of how the amazing message of grace is passed from person to person, embracing people with love and drawing them into relationship with God. And that’s a story worth being part of.

Bible study: Acts 27 – Shipwrecked

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why didn’t the centuiron listen to Paul’s sailing advice?

Paul, the zealous Pharisee. Paul, the man who met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, the travelling preacher. Paul, the tent-maker. Paul, the letter-writer. Paul, the prisoner. But no, despite all these things, Paul was not an expert sailor.

When advice comes, we all tend to filter it slightly depending on who has said it. If we trust their opinion, or know their reputation, or have seen their credentials, we’re probably more likely to accept their advice. But all too often we’ll ignore advice from people who clearly know nothing about the matter. At work today someone was having trouble with a website I had made, and told me that it was not working and that I should fix it immediately. Of course, I’m a professional web developer, and they struggle to use a keyboard, so my immediate reaction was to ignore them, because they were almost certainly using it wrong. Only after a bit of back-and-forth did we eventually confirm that the website was indeed broken, and I needed to fix it.

But that’s the way it usually works, and most of the time it’s a perfectly valid way of approaching problems – you trust the person with the most experience. So how do we learn to recognise those moments when the inexperienced opinion is right? How was the centurion to know that Paul’s advice would have saved them from shipwreck? How can we be expected to know whether a stranger’s advice is worth taking seriously, just in case it’s God speaking through them?

I don’t really have a clear answer to this one. I want to say that we should prayerfully consider the advice and try to descern whether the advice is Godly or earthly. But from my experience that’s easier said than done. I make the centurion’s mistake all too often. I think I know best. I think I’ll know God’s voice when I hear it. I think I know the Bible well enough to know what it says about anything. Maybe I need yet more humility. As long as that doesn’t jeopardise my own confidence and experience. There’s a careful balance to strive for, it seems, somewhere between our competency and our humility.

How did Paul have so much faith in his safety, even in the face of danger?

In some ways it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise; after all, Paul has been in danger before. He’s had mobs of angry Jews shouting at him, and in some cases stoning him to within an inch of his life. But there’s something about the sea that is particularly scary. It’s big – reallyt big. And deep. And uncontrollable. And some scary things live in it too. People can be stopped; the depth of the ocean can’t. It’s cold and unforgiving and relentless, and when a storm starts brewing it can be a terrifying experience.

And yet Paul is confident in God, even in this situation. It all rested on the vision he’d been given, the promise that he would present his case to the emperor, and so this couldn’t be the end for him. Paul had confidence that God kept his promises, even if it looked as if nature was about to get in the way.

Do we have that confidence in God’s promises? When I was putting my kids to bed this evening we read a bit from Isaiah 40, about how God looks after us and strengthens us and protects us, holding us in his loving arms. And I could relate to that a little, because I need that reassurance – my job is less than secure right now, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future looks like. What Acts 27 and Isaiah 40 remind me of is that God has promised to look after me, so I have nothing to fear. God is bigger than my employer. And Jesus has promised that each of us is important to him, that no one is forgotten, that no one slips under the radar. Even if I have to face my own shipwreck in the form of redundancy, I know that God’s promise endures, and that his strength sustains me.

“And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” Praise God!

Bible study: Acts 25-26 – Too much learning is driving you insane

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Paul is not mad

After hearing Paul’s testimony, Festus exclaimed “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” I think that’s become one of my favourite verses in Acts! However, humour aside, it’s soon very clear that Paul is not mad at all. Paul takes great pains (again) to explain his upbringing, showing that he is not some radical thinker who has always been a trouble-maker, and that in fact everything that he is doing as a Christian is consistent with his character before his conversion. He has not suddenly become a different person. What has changed is his perspective and understanding.

I have sometimes wondered where I would be without God. I gave my life to Jesus when I was six years old, at a kids’ holiday club during a February half term holiday. Ever since then (and arguably before, too) I have tried to live my life in step with Jesus’ teaching, to love other people even if they don’t love me, to forgive them when they hurt me, to try to follow God’s rules, to go where he leads me, and to tell others about him. Because of my faith I have met certain people, done certain things, got certain jobs, learnt certain lessons, that I might not have done otherwise. If it wasn’t for God I wouldn’t have met my wife, I wouldn’t have got any of the jobs I’ve had, I wouldn’t have the same network of friends. But would I have been a different person? Would my character have been different? Am I persistently positive and peaceful because of God, or would I have had that character anyway?

Paul’s testimony reveals that he always had zeal for God. If it weren’t for his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he would have been imprisoning Christians left right and centre. What becomes apparent to those listening to his defence is that Paul hasn’t had a mid-life crisis or lost his mind; he’s still as rational as ‘normal’ as he ever was, it’s just pointing in a different direction now. And we, like Paul, are invited by God to change direction. Jesus wants to mold us to his plan, because his plan is better than ours, but that doesn’t mean making us into completely different people. God made us, and knows us, and that was deliberate; even if we don’t follow him, we are who he intended us to be. So it’s likely that even if I hadn’t given my life to Jesus when I was six I would still be peaceful and forgiving, I would still love Lego and cars and computers and music, I would still be me. Following Jesus doesn’t invalidate who I am.

The tricky bit for us is working out which bits of ourselves we can keep and which bits need redirecting. And that’s where knowing the Bible is useful. Like Paul, we do need to read the scriptures (yes, even the boring bits in Deuteronomy), because they are still important. We may not be bound by the Law in the same way as the Jews, because we have a personaly relationship with Jesus which is even more important, but those laws were given for a reason and we need to understand why if we are to understand the God we worship. Through the scriptures, God will show us which parts of our life are exactly the way he wanted them, and which parts we’ve distorted. Being a Christian isn’t about madness, or irrationality; it’s about becoming more and more the person we were originally made to be.

Bible study: Acts 21-24 – Freewill and predestination

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why didn’t Paul listen to the prophecy not to go to Jerusalem?

The observant of you will notice that I’ve read more than one chapter tonight. The story has really got some pace now, and I just didn’t want to stop reading!

Anyway, at the beginning of chapter 21 we have two instances of people telling Paul through the Holy Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem, warning him that he would be imprisoned if he did so. In both cases, Paul ignores the warning from God and goes to Jerusalem anyway. And, lo and behold, he almost immediately gets into trouble and is arrested. It’s quite an exciting story, actually, what with crowds, false accusations, court room scenes, relevations about connections with Rome, and an escape from a trap.

But the bit that puzzles me is Acts 23:11: “That night the Lord stood near [Paul] and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.'” Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that previously God had told Paul not to go to Jerusalem at all! So did those other Christians get the prophecy wrong? Was it God’s plan that Paul went to Jerusalem or not?

When I was at university there was a running joke about never mentioning “freewill” or “predestination” because they were too divisive and you’d never get people to stop debating about it. Personally, I thought that was a bit of a shame, because I like meaty discussions! At the root of the joke, though, was the understanding that you either accepted the concept of freewill OR you accepted the concept of predestination – the two were mutually exclusive. I never quite bought that, and following those uni years I thought more about it, and concluded that actually we need both. God allows us to have freewill because he knows the outcome; put another way, God knowing the outcome doesn’t stop us from having freewill.

Apologies if that sounds a little tangental, but it links back into the reading because Paul had freewill. God’s plan, by the sounds of it, was that Paul should bear witness in Rome. When Paul decided to ignore God’s plan and go to Jerusalem, events transpired that meant that Paul would go to Rome after all. Same destination, different route. God’s plan is perfect, but it’s more than just a carefully crafted Gantt chart or a colourful spreadsheet – God’s plan is achieved even when we have the freewill to change parts of it.

That’s both humbling and terrifying. On the one hand, I’m blown away by the grace in God’s plan, that even if we mess up and go our own way, God doesn’t give up on us. God’s plan is too big and too important to be derailed by my decisions, and yet he allows me to choose my own actions anyway. What love he has for us, that he would trust us so much, despite our track record. At the same time, I feel the weight of responsibility to listen to God more closely, knowing that he has graciously given me responsibility for my part in his plan, and I don’t want to mess it up. It’s freewill AND predestination, both at work together. And yes, that fries my brain sometimes.

Bible study: Acts 19 – Magic

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s wrong with ‘pretending’ to be a Christian?

I’m focusing in on just a few verses of chapter 19 today, because it seems particularly interesting. In this account, some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” try to use the name of Jesus to drive out an evil spirit, who proceeds to mock them, overpower them, and send them fleeing naked. It’s interesting because various disciples are recorded to have done exactly the same thing and successfully cast out the spirits, but it doesn’t appear to work the same for everybody.

It’s perhaps useful to remember that names were significant in their culture, more so than in ours today. I’m not convinced that there is anything scientifically special about the sound of the name – the sound waves themselves don’t do anything clever. It’s what is identified by the name that is important, which is why there is power in the name even after it’s been translated into a different language and sounds completely different. When Peter or Paul or any of the disciples called upon the name of Jesus to bring about a miracle, it was to make it clear to those listening that the source of the power was in Christ, not in themselves. It’s a public thing – it’s important because it is heard. I’m pretty sure that if Paul had prayed silently in his room, the miracle would still have happened, it doesn’t need to be audible.

And this is perhaps what the Jews missed. They thought that the power working through the Christians was some sort of magic, that by performing the same routine or combination of rituals that the same outcome would happen for them too. It was a power they sought to master, to control. They wanted the miracle, but without the relationship with the source.

I wonder if there are ‘pretenders’ in our churches, sometimes. People who come to church because they think that attendance will win them points, and if they rack up enough points then they’ll get into heaven. I certainly think that’s why some people only ever set foot in a church on so-called “high days a holidays” – they’re not interested in a relationship with God, but they want the benefits of eternal life nonetheless. There may even be people who attend church every Sunday for the same reason. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, I’m generalising here. But it seems such a shame. They’re missing the point. It’s like sex without love – selfish gratification that misses out on something even more wonderful. The challenge for us, I suppose, is identifying who these pretenders are, and working out how to show them what they’re missing.

Why were the people awestruck by the evil spirit?

That’s perhaps a misleading question. The events with the evil spirit and the Jewish exorcists leaves people in wonder, but it’s not actually the evil spirit they’re amazed by. I think there’s an understanding amongst the people that the Holy Spirit, and indeed all the power that is implied in the name of Jesus, is not something trivial, or something to be played with. It was a clear demonstration that Jesus is not a computer program – you can’t just put in a command and expect an answer. And I think that makes God more real, for me at least. God isn’t a series of rules and traditions, God isn’t something we can tame or control, God isn’t a magic spell that always produces the same effect if you do it right. God is wild, dangerous, unpredictable, spontaneous. Not in a vindictive way, of course, but just in the sense that the most real things in life are not formulaic.

I need to watch out that I don’t fall into this trap by accident, though. As much as I might like to think I have an awesome relationship with God, and a flawless understanding of his greatness, at the end of the day I’m only human, and a pretty rubbish one at that. I need to be careful that I don’t just expect God to turn up on a Sunday. I need to watch out that when I pray before preparing a service or a sermon, I’m doing it because I actually want to have a conversation with a friend, not just as a way of ensuring my preparation goes well. When I write these Bible study notes (which you’re reading), I need to be careful that I’m not just writing to show off my knowledge of the Bible, but that it helps me draw closer to my Saviour.

What prompted the people to give up magic?

Yes, magic is in the Bible. Which means that magic is real. Weird, unexplanable, mysterious things can indeed happen, without the power of God behind them. Miracles aren’t the sole reserve of Christians. The difference is the source of the power, and if it’s not coming from God then clearly it must be coming from somewhere else, somewhere similarly spiritual and powerful. And if verse 19 is anything to go by, those other powers are quite happy to be used programmatically, using spells to conjour an outcome rather than a personal relationship with a deity.

I met a witch once. He seemed like a nice enough chap. He helped me with my Mini. I told him I was a Christian, and he said that people like me didn’t like people like him. And I guess there’s an understandable conflict. For people like him, the success of a spell depends on how well he performs the ritual. For people like me, the success of a prayer depends entirely on the will of God – we actually have no direct control over the outcome. It’s easy to see why someone like him would feel like he’s on the winning side.

So to read that all those magic books were publicly burned is significant. Clearly those who practiced magic realised that there was something more important than mere power. Invoking the name of Jesus is meaningless unless you understand who is behind that name. And once you understand that Jesus isn’t confined to rituals and spells, you realise that there is so much more – relationship with the One True God puts everything else in the shade.

Today, magic comes in a different package. Spell books have been replaced by self-help paperbacks. Rituals have been replaced by diets. Magic words have been replaced by fashion. The witch’s hovel has been replaced by the local gym. I’m not saying all those modern examples are inherently wrong or evil or anything like that, but the way we sometimes use them is eerily similar to the way people used to use magic. We use various techniques to transform ourselves, to change the way people perceive us, to influence how people react to us, to empower us with confidence and self-esteem. I have a friend who ‘religiously’ goes to the gym, always striving to be fitter; she jokingly refers to it as her ‘church’. But it’s just magic. If we really want to understand the world we live in, if we really want to live our lives to the full, if we really want to be filled with strength and wisdom, we’ll find it in our relationship  with Jesus. Everything else is just a poor imitation, won’t last, and might as well be burned on a fire.