Only Grace, Not Circumcision

Message: only grace is needed, not circumcision or any other symbols, based on Galatians 6:1-18.

Introduction 

Thinking about circumcision made me think of the symbols we all carry around:

  • Signet ring – bears my initials, given to me by my parents.
  • Wedding ring – bears both our initials and wedding date (c.f. ‘lady in the lake’ murder story – google it).
  • Help for Heroes band – anyone can wear (for only £2!), but I used to be in the RAF.
  • My Watch – not really symbolic, but indicates responsibilities.
  • My cross – I wear it because I belong to Jesus Christ (not as a good-luck charm).

Exegesis: Galatians 6 

This is the final chapter of the letter that is all about GRACE:

  • Bear each other’s burdens to obey the law (vv1-2).
  • Judge yourself – beware prideful comparisons (vv3-5).
  • Support Christian teachers (missionaries & minsters) – in the UK! (v6).
  • God can’t be fooled, you reap what you sow (vv7-8).
  • Do good to all, all your life, for God’s reward! (v9).
  • Especially do this for you Brothers & Sisters in the faith (v10).
  • This is personal!  Personal faith is a recurrent theme for Paul (c.f. his Jewishness). (V11).
  • The circumcisers focus on outward things so they can fit in; even they don’t obey the law they say they are promoting! (vv12-13). 
  • Paul’s focus is the cross of Christ that killed the old person of sin and enables the inner transformation to the new person (vv14-15).
  • Paul is circumcised and he also has other scars to prove his loyalty to Christ! (v17).
  • In the end it’s all about Grace – that’s the best Paul can wish them (v18).

Application

I think that there are two key verses here.

  • “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”  (NIV, v7).
    • This is a warning to those in Christ who might abuse God’s grace.
    • We can’t ignore God’s instructions or neglect his Word and expect to profit.
    • In God’s universe there are consequences for every action.
  • “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (NIV, v15).
    • I don’t think that Paul is deriding his circumcision (although it’s just one of many scars on his body).
    • But it only an outer symbol of an inner conviction – a new relationship with God that produces a new lifestyle in response.
    • Similarly, there is nothing wrong with wedding rings, but imagine that I was a lousy, abusive or unfaithful husband; then the ring would just be a reminder of my failure.
    • Worse, for those who know the truth – and God knows everything – the ring is then a mockery of everything it is supposed to be. 
    • Grace is the key to this change – we call it ‘salvation’ – that unlocks the new person.
    • Even now that we are saved, we need Grace to keep us going without backsliding or going stale, or becoming smug and satisfied with outer respectability.

Conclusion

Therefore I hope that we will never point to mere symbols to justify ourselves.  Instead I wish us all the very best, God’s Grace, to help us in our ongoing inner transformation and matching outer life style: our new life in Christ.

Grace

A sermon on grace, based on Galatians 1:1-12 and 1:11-24.

Galatians 1:1-9: Grace is Key

Paul’s greets his audience, prays for them and gets straight to business.

  • Vv 1-2.  Paul: an ambassador sent directly by God and Christ – raised from the dead.
  • Vv 3-5.  A (short) prayer for the Galatians (northern Turkey), emphasising Jesus’ sacrifice to save them from their sins and from living a world ruled by ungodly powers.
  • Vv 6-7.  Paul tackles the issue head-on:
    • The Galatians have strayed from the pure Gospel of grace from Christ.
    • They have been distracted by the Jewish tradition that demands the observance of practices such as circumcision, in order to be accepted by God.
    • This is no Gospel – where is the Good News of forgiveness at no cost to us?
    • This is an insult to the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross!
  • Vv 8-9.  Paul issues a ‘double anathema’.  He denounces anyone who would pervert the Gospel, even if they were an angel; perhaps he is reminding his Jewish critics that Satan (the ‘accuser’) was an angel, who seeks to punish us for our sins. 

Galatians 1:10-12: A First-rate Gospel 

Paul makes a plain statement to rebut his critics.

  • He is not a populist seeking favour with an ‘easy’ or second-rate Gospel to please people.
  • The Gospel that Paul preaches comes direct from God himself.

Galatians 1:13-24: Grace is Central

Grace is absolutely central to Paul for very personal reasons.

  • Vv 13-14.  Paul persecuted the church fiercely (inc. murder) driven by his zeal for Judaism.
  • Vv 15-16.  Yet God revealed Jesus to Paul and called him to preach.
  • Vv 17-19.  Paul did not seek by men (even the apostles), but followed God’s instructions.  (He refers to Peter and James – other good Jews who betrayed Jesus, but who were forgiven.)
  • Vv 20-24.  In his previous missionary work Paul did not rely on endorsement by church leaders; rather his totally transformed life and witness spoke for themselves.  

Conclusion

Paul is very passionate about God.  It was always in his nature to be so, but God has personally forgiven Paul’s very personal persecution of God:

‘“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  (Acts 9:4b-5).

Paul has been forgiven much and therefore loves much (see Luke 7:42b-43 and v47b). 

Today there is a danger that, in a faddy effort to be ‘inclusive’ and encourage ‘diversity’, the church may abuse grace and offer forgiveness to the unrepentant.  However, this appeasement of sin, this twisting of the Gospel, this heresy, should not put us off.

Paul stakes his life on grace: all sinners are accepted by God, because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Paul knew that he had sinned much and been forgiven much, and he loved God greatly as a result and lived accordingly.  So should we.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus’s Legacy

A sermon on Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church. (Scripture for the day: Genesis 11:1-9; John 14:8-17, (25-27); and Romans 8:14-17).

Jesus’ Legacy: the Holy Spirit.

  • Not just a Birthday, but Our anniversary – a time for reflection and thinking ahead.
  • When we reflect we often think of our legacy – what have we achieved, what have we left behind us?
  • The Holy Spirit is Jesus ‘legacy’ (legacy = bequest, inheritance, gift, donation).

The Holy Spirit is… 

Who is this person we’ve inherited?  What are they like?  What do they do?

  • Holy – set aside for God’s purpose or work.
  • Of Truth – leads people to the truth about God and who Jesus is.
  • Reminder – of Jesus (person), actions, teaching and message.
  • Peaceful – allows us to rest in intimacy with God, rather than fear.
  • Counsellor – helps and advises us, especially to obey God because we love Jesus.
  • Advocate – our defender when accused (Satan = ‘accuser’).
  • Comforter – someone we can turn to for reassurance in trouble.
  • Adopter – lets us know that we are adopted, and receive God’s inheritance (legacy).
  • Has personality – not a characterless, distant force, but a person we can know.
  • Dynamic – changing and responsive to our situation; active in God’s plans.
  • Guide – leads us to do new things, meet new people and see new places.

Our Legacy 

In around 25 years’ time I will be retiring (I hope) and looking back upon a life of…What will I have achieved?  Where will I have fallen short?  [“because …”]

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Teddy Roosevelt, 23rd Apr 1910.

In 25 years’, what will our Church look like?  Many congregations will have died our entirely; their buildings will no longer be holy.  Yate and Staple Hill are larger and have families with children, so they should still be here.  We will endure; but, given what we know about the Holy Spirit, is that enough? 

We Chose to Celebrate

A sermon about chosing, based on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and several New Testament passages.

Introduction

People who don’t know God sometimes say that they can’t believe in Him because of all the bad things in the world (e.g. David Attenborough and the eyeball-burrowing worm; he choses not to consider the logical opposite, which is that good things in the world suggest that there is a God.)

Jeremiah 31 – Meaning at the Time

But God never promised us a perfect world, a world free from suffering and the effects of sin.  Notice what Jeremiah says:

“For the Lord will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.”  (Jer 31:11)

God promises to ransom/redeem Jacob, His people in exile, from a stronger people, either the Assyrians or Babylonians; note that this is a concrete promise referring to real events, not some vague nicety.  However, God does not promise to make ‘us’ stronger than ‘them’, but merely to rescue us.  The stronger peoples, who do not know God, will remain.  We should not, therefore, expect a perfect world.  John points out that many Jews failed to recognise Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus himself tells us that poverty[1] and war[2] will always be with us.   Not everyone will know God.  Life is not fair. 

Meaning for Today

This unfairness also raises questions amongst people.  Some ask what have Christians done to deserve this favour?  Why, in this age, which worships individual choice and equality[3], is this salvation not equally available to all?  John’s Gospel tells us that it does not depend on inherited rights, but on recognising Jesus: “… his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him … he gave the right to become children of God …” (John 1:11b-12).  Anyone can be saved if they receive Jesus. 

Some Christians want to make the world perfect in their own strength, in their own understanding.  Perhaps the evangelical want to see everyone accept Jesus as Lord.  Perhaps the legalists want to see all Christians obey God’s will perfectly.  Perhaps the liberals want to see all social ills and injustices wiped out.  Perhaps the ‘Universalists’ would like all to be saved regardless of their belief in Jesus.  All of these groups will be disappointed – none of them will be able to celebrate victory.  As nice as these ideas sound, they are not real, and they are not part of God’s plan.

The response that is required of us at Christmas is to celebrate being part of God’s chosen people.  We recognised God in Jesus and believe in who He is.  For that reason alone we are saved, we have bought in to God’s plan to save humanity, which he formulated before he formed the universe itself.  With a free ticket we have won the lottery, a prize of undeserved holiness and blamelessness, adoption and inheritance, lavish grace, redemption and forgiveness.  We have even been briefed on God’s secret plan to eliminate poverty, war, sin and unbelief by bringing all things under Christ at the end of time[4]

Conclusion

Today, therefore, the people of God are not to waste time waiting for a perfect world that we can’t make, or questioning God’s wisdom in granting salvation as He chooses.  Today, we are to celebrate what we already have, the salvation and hope of Jesus, the promised Messiah.  We really are different from other people, only because we recognise Jesus for what He really is – God and man.  We chose to accept Jesus as Lord and so to become the Chosen people of God.  Happy Christmas!


[1] Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will always have … ”

[2] Matthew 24:6 “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars … [in the end times]”

[3] To the point where it damages society!

[4] Ephesians 1:3-14.

Making Jesus more Reasonable

A sermon about the temptation to make Jesus more reasonable, based on Luke 4:21-30 and 1Corinthians 13.

Introduction

A recent BBC social survey suggests attitudes are getting more liberal, which is not surprising given years of BBC propaganda designed to achieve this end!

However, pressure on the church to conform to the norms of society is not new. Many years ago, the church abandoned it’s opposition to lending money. The Biblical position is that lending money for profit to those in need is exploitation – ‘usury’.

I knew a Christian Bank Manager who complained about irresponsible lending to his superiors – he isn’t a Bank Manager anymore! Now we can look back on the ‘credit crunch’ and we see the devastation caused by irresponsible lending by greedy lenders.

I can’t say with integrity that all lending is wrong (I have a mortgage), but the church is needed to counterbalance natural human greed and restrain its worst effects: we could say that of all sins.  Not that the church – you and me – are perfect.  We need Christ’s leadership to guide us, before we can be an example to others: “Doctor, heal yourself” Jesus says.

The Biblical, Unreasonable Jesus

In many parts of the Gospel we see Jesus saying and doing things that don’t fit in with our modern, liberal politically-correct western society.

He insults a foreign woman who comes to him for help; he physically assaults the money lenders in the Temple; he appears to make mistakes, or not to be able to do things in certain circumstances; he suggests that it’s better to mutilate oneself than to burn in hell; and he points out other peoples’ sins – even while forgiving and healing them.

Some Christians ignore inconvenient parts of the Gospel; many scholars (liberal or conservative) try to explain away Jesus’ more difficult words and deeds.

Luke 4 and Corinthians 13

In today’s passage he goes out of his way to provoke and upset people (I wonder, is it to shock them out of their smug complacency?  Or am I just making excuses like everyone else?)  Jesus deliberately provokes his own kith and kin to the point where they are ready to murder him.  Think about that.  That’s the Lord we follow – ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild?’

Contrast that with 1Corinthians Chapter 13 on love.  We had this at our wedding, but perhaps it isn’t just the mushy, emotional passage that people think it is!

We would like Jesus to be more reasonable.  Why does he have to be so difficult?  Why can’t he be more middle of the road, middle class – more like us?

Our society currently worships celebrity and wealth.  To be a celebrity you have to be popular.  To be popular to have to offend as few people as possible, you have to broaden your appeal.

Even if you’re not trying to be famous, you have to be careful what you say, lest you offend anyone.  That’s employment law!  Voicing an opinion is not the way to get ahead: avoid emotive issues – like uncomfortable facts – if you want to get ahead.

Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in doing this – why does he have to be so inconvenient?

The Imitation of Christ

We are supposed to imitate Christ, but we try to make him imitate us instead.  One of our faults is to try and make Jesus more like us – to make him more reasonable.

At the moment our society is telling us to stop making a fuss. We don’t have the right to tell other people how to live – even if we are just leading by example.  “Stop rocking the boat” is the message: but Jesus rocked the boat and we are to imitate him.

I remember being told in art class to “draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  I hope that we will read the words and actions of Jesus in the Bible, just as they are.  We will need Faith, Hope and Love to truly follow him, and I wish you every blessing on the road.

Amen

Part of the Team

A sermon about the joys (and perils) of being part of the team (or tribe), based on 1Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21.

Introduction

When we read the Bible there is a danger that we can prettify it.  We can think that all God’s people are heroes who never make mistakes, and that we are inferior by comparison.  Similarly, we can assume that people in leadership have got it all together, and that they don’t need us – we have nothing to offer.  Or the leaders know everything – we can’t offer any useful insight.

Corinthians

It seems from this passage (1Cor 12:12-31a) that the Corinthians had been creating or reinforcing divisions within the congregation, on mundane and/or spiritual grounds.  One of these divisions was between the different gifts, and Paul sets out to correct this.  While recognising that some gifts are regarded more highly, he points out that all gifts are needed and must all work together in love for the good of all (see 1Cor 13, next week).

Context.  I was thinking of these things in two contexts:

  • At Work.  Recently I’ve come up against a problem at work that has forced me to question what we are doing.  This did not make me popular with the rest of the team.  I found that:
  • Team membership depended upon toeing the party line, being ‘on message’
  • If you question the team then you are one of ‘them’ not ‘us.’: team = tribe.
  • Rather than listen to the message (the Team is in danger), I was labelled as ‘emotional’ & ‘outspoken’ – a troublemaker.
  • I was reminded why successful teams can fail – they believe their own propaganda and lose touch with reality.
  • In Church.  This is true of us as individuals and as a church.  I’ve seen:
  • A church that was blessed with resources to share that turned its back on that to become something else.
  • People with gifts being overlooked and/or needs being ignored.
  • Groups with gifts refusing to put them to use without strings attached.
  • Locally Methodists are preoccupied with the reorganisation of the Circuit and preaching – we seem to be ignoring the reality of shrinking numbers.

Unhappiness results in every case, because God made us for certain things – we are what we are and the world is what it is, not what we think we/it is.

Gospel Passage

In Luke 4:14-21 we see Jesus bucking this trend.  The people of Nazareth identify Jesus as one of them, part of the tribe.  They expect him to act accordingly, to fit in with their expectations of him as Mary’s son.  Instead Jesus tells them that he is God’s chosen one, the Messiah!  Jesus was not ‘on message’!  He was not one of them – he was a troublemaker!   (Next week we’ll see that he went on to reject their expectations of a miracle and upset them to the point where they wanted to kill him, Luke 4:22-30).

Conclusion

We don’t have to wait to be ‘called’ or to become something else before we start contributing – we are ready here and now.  Loyalty to the team does not make false things true (or vice versa) and it does not override loyalty to God.  We are a Team and not a tribe – we are members of the Team because God made us so, not because we blindly conform to a shared idea of who we are, regardless of reality.  Jesus followed His mission regardless of the short-term consequences.  God will shatter our false self images if they get in the way of his Truth and His Kingdom.  You are needed!

Culture or a Relationship with God?

A sermon on culture versus God, from 1Corinthians 8:1-6.

Aim:  To show the limitations of ‘culture’ as a substitute for loving God.

Scripture

Paul talks about Jewish food rules getting in the way of the Christians worshipping God.  These rules, which were helpful for living in the desert a thousand years before, have no power to help anyone.

Paul names this: mere superstition.

Meaning for Today: culture

Today we call this superstition ‘Culture’.  This word used to mean making people better, educating them, but now we use it to describe all the things we do for no logical reason.

For example on Australia Day speeches all started by acknowledging Aboriginal Culture.  This is a well-meaning but empty gesture, as it does nothing to improve anyone or to correct real inequality (e.g. an indigenous woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the lowest in Australia, whereas a western woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the highest).

Using the culture label for other’s religious beliefs avoids difficult questions like: are they true? are they real?  By focusing on Culture we can paper over the cracks: safe but superficial; however, it’s patronising, even cowardly.

Culture: application

I was talking to a friend having a tough time, he’d had some time off work with stress.  We talked about how we have to wear a grown-up mask to show other people, versus the real person underneath, which was formed when we were children.  We have to maintain this pretence because our western culture won’t accept or value our real child-like selves (is this something we could learn from the Aboriginal peoples?)  Maintaining this false mask causes real mental health problems.

It made me think how helpful our relationship with God is. We can be ourselves – weak, childlike, silly – but even so, we are accepted and understood.  We can understand our place in a family, in society, in this false culture (Jesus calls it ‘the World’) and the universe.  It is real, not culture.  It causes people to admit their mistakes, to be true and real, to right wrongs and do amazing things to educate themselves and improve the lives of others.

Conclusion

Let us enjoy and value culture, but keep it in its place.  Let’s not accept the superstition of culture – giving it power over people, or the idolatry of culture – allowing it to be a substitute for God.  We are created in God’s image, to have a relationship with God.

Not Power, but Faith

We’re not looking for power, but faith … a Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10 (Year B, Proper 9 / Ordinary 14)

Introduction

Sometimes I hear Christians say “if only we really believed and really loved like Jesus we would transform the world,” but Jesus said that most would reject God, and war/poverty would be with us until the end times.  What they really mean is if we had more numbers we would have power!

Scripture – 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10

Paul, a man of great faith, is not healed  (miracles are not a reward for faith).  He explains that he must have this thorn in his flesh, to make him rely on God’s grace.

The Corinthians are wealthy, powerful, clever, successful & strong.  Paul’s two big letters to them (16 & 13 Chaps) are one long rebuke!  He has to justify his authority to say these things and does so – by boasting about his sufferings (Chap 11)!  Paul uses his weakness to shame the strong (as in 1Cor Chaps 1-2).

Application

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men” said a wise historian about the idea that religious leaders and kings could not make mistakes.

I mentioned the Islamic State earlier.  The Five Pillars of Islam are: declaring the faith; prayer; giving; fasting; and pilgrimage.  But look what happens when you give people guns – these gentle ideas are quickly thrown out!

We need weakness to remind us to rely on God.  Many of you know my wife but may not know that she has been ill for all her adult life.  Our struggle against this illness has been good for us – it has brought us closer together, stopped us from being able to take each other for granted.  Our relationship with God is like that.

Conclusion

We won’t transform the world for the better by being strong or clever or powerful.  There are lots of strong, clever and powerful people in the world and they’re making it worse as often as better!  We will transform ourselves, not the world, by doing three things:

  1. We will be fallible, average and powerless (what we are now);
  2. but we will rely on God’s Omni-power, -presence, -knowledge and -seeing: faith in God; and
  3. we will be doing the best that we can.