Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Who are we?

Identity is still an important thing to most people - what we belong to, which groups we are a part of, how we identify with those groups and people.

For some its a uniform, for example medical professionals, care staff, military folks and some ministers. For others its the language they use, the things that they wear or the music that they listen to.The list goes on, but you get the picture I hope.

I recall my first week at university in the mid 1970's, everyone on freshers week delighting in the ability to leave school uniform behind (most at that time in sixth form colleges had uniforms). Yet the first thing most did was go to the students union and buy a complete set of denims, a sort of freshers uniform. I wasn't big on denim so tended to favour the military trench coat and flared trousers.

To some extend the church has been, in my opinion, rather too busy trying to merge with culture, and become in parts, almost invisible, attempting to be more acceptable, less different. That too is an identity thing, who are we in Christ and what are we called to be? How are we called to behave and what does that mean to the identity that we carry with us and live out in our lives?

Peter when asked at the trial of Jesus if he knew him, if he identified with him, denied it from fear of reprisal. I wonder if that is one of the reasons we can tend to be timid about who we are as Christians and want to blend with the landscape, and yes I know that can be tricky as we have different views on many things across churches.

I wonder if you were asked by a friend,  colleague, a school or university friend or even by someone in a social setting, who are you? Would we answer, I am a Christian? I am sure some would say "yes, I would answer like that", but I am equally sure that for many Christians such an answer would be far too out there to reply with. In part, like Peter, I guess there is fear of how others will react to us, but also I wonder if it has more to do with who we are in Christ and how secure we are in that, how we identify as Christians and how we want others to see us.

Jesus asks us to be salt and light - to me that seems like he means us to be noticed, for others to know who we are and for them to be affected by who are are. That says to me that our identity should be obvious to others by the things we do, how we act and what we say. Our identity in Christ is one of total commitment and trying not to be embarrassed about how others view Christians but instead showing folks that we are going to make a difference and we are going to promote Christ in the way our lives are lived. I am happy with my identity as a Christian and am happy to tell anyone who asks, I aim to be salt and light wherever I am and in whatever I am doing in the hope that it might help some search for Christ for themselves. How about you?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Old and New

We are all familiar I expect with the popular story of Aladdin and his lamp. A supposedly old lamp that looks a bit battered becomes one of Aladdins' prized possessions, after his false uncle tried to trap him. His wife falls for a ploy of the false Uncle to exchange new lamps for old, she thinks to please Aladdin with a brand new lamp. The problem was that the old lamp had far more value to Aladdin than any new lamp, as it was the source of his wealth,

Its a common problem in any group that some want to hang on to the old because it can seem safe and understandable and is what they have invested in. Others hanker after something new and want to ditch the old rapidly and forget it.

Jesus in his teaching tells of not putting new wine into an old wine skin, which all of his listeners would have known was daft since new wine would burst an old, already stretched, wine skin. He had not come to simply patch up or refill the old religious traditions. However he also had not come to throw away the God's law.

And just to make things more complex, Jesus also tells us that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die so that it can in time germinate and produce a great increase of seeds. The old seed must die to produce the new. They are not separate but interconnected, The new could not exist without the old.

New can be dazzling and attractive and tick the boxes for us, but the old often has value which we may not fully understood. The seed carries the DNA of the plant that it will "die" to become, the new in effect is a product of the old, without the old it would not exist. Understanding that connection is perhaps crucial when we look at changes in church life.

Change in church life is a fact and is constant, the pressures around us to adapt, to include, to infuse to produce new ways to do things, are immense. The difficult part is discerning what of the old to let go of and what to keep, what to let "die" so that something new can germinate from it. Even more difficult is letting go of something that we have nurtured and put huge effort into only to have to watch it fade and go. But it is sometimes the only way that the new can take shape and grow and blossom and produce a new crop, a new harvest.

Managing such change is also a skill, not too fast, not too slow, carrying at least the majority with the changes and handling the disappointments, concerns and resistance of others.

One person told me after I have been Pastor of the church for around 4 years, "you don't seem to have changed much in your time here". I smiled to myself as I reflected on all that had changed, slowly, gently and hopefully helpful to our faith journeys as a church. In the changes some things had had to go and others grew from them, Most of the changes have worked well but some changes we have got wrong and have needed to adjust. Often in getting it wrong we can learn and so improve.

The old is important if we are to better understand how to handle change, the new is important as we discern God's direction for the church we serve. Embracing both is an art.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Justice mitigated with love

We live at a time when culture can tend to dictate trends and attitudes. The church continually struggles with what that means to long held and theologically wrestled with views of scripture and how Christians should live it out in their daily lives. We struggle with what scripture says and what society says when they don't seem to add up together.

Is it so different a time, I wonder, from what we read of in the Bible? Take the Hebrews who in the desert soon reverted to the cultural norm of worshiping animal shaped gods when Moses was up on the mountain, a practice they had learned from years in Egypt, I suspect. The Israelite's struggled continually with God's call on their lives to be set apart, to be Holy and righteous and to keep his commands. They struggled with the religions and cultures around them and ended up caving in and adopting those ways, demoting God. As result God's judgement on them was played out in separation; the prophets talk in terms of unfaithfulness and divorce (take a look at Hosea for example).

God, as the Bible tells us is, among other characteristics, a God who is just and his works perfect. However we read the Bible, that message comes through in the New and Old Testaments. Justice suggests judgement which at times is pretty hard for us to stomach. The rebellions in the desert of the Hebrews resulted in swift responses and at times only Moses intercession seems to have averted total disaster for them. God's justice was visited on King David for his blatant abuse of power in claiming another's wife and having the husband killed. We don't like a God who punishes and corrects and yet its a part of who God is, a God who judges our actions and is just and Holy.

And us, what about us today? The Bible tells us that Jesus came to save humanity from the price of sin, the things we do that offend against God's ways, that rightly and justly deserve the penalty. In Jesus' words if we don't turn from sin and turn to God we will die.

So what about culture and cultural pressure for Christians to adopt new ideas or change their theological positions? We are inevitably and, in my opinion rightly, slow to change, if we change at all in some situations. Scripture must be wrestled with and not simply looked at with a new cultural agenda or lens or with a view to a quick fix, after all that would be, as Paul puts it, like being blown here and there by every wind of teaching ... Through the centuries the Church has had to wrestle with change in its understanding and often for good reason, but not everything can be changed, some things are in God's word to us for good reason even if we don't like them or if they challenge our views.

Gods justice is mitigated with love, love that knows no bounds, love that pays the price, love that offered a sacrifice to end all sacrifices, Jesus, in our place. God's just punishment for our sin, paid in full so that we might be set free, in Christ.

However I look at scripture I see love and justice going together, God is creating with his people a holy priesthood, a royal nation, modeled on his ways, not ours, our template? Jesus Christ. Living with cultural pressures to change means that what is acceptable to some will not be to others and there is a need for the church not to move with every wind and pressure, but to seek faithfully to know God's heart on each issue - after all Jesus told us that he was sending, and I believe he has, the Holy Spirit to lead us in all truth.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Living sacrifices

Recently we have been looking, in church, at the Holy Spirit and us. One of the things that has been coming up in my studies preparing the sermons on this is the call to be a "living sacrifice".

Rom 12:1  Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is your true and proper worship.

Tozer in his book "Life in the Spirit" talks about separation, which occurs when believers are filled with the Spirit, his example is the disciples after Pentecost. This point being that the Spirit brings a separation between believers and the world. Not physically but spiritually, this separation is a part of the living sacrifices that we are to be. He goes on to tell of the Moravians in 1727, who having experienced this filling with the Holy Spirit, became some of the most enthusiastic evangelists of their day, giving up the comforts of their homes to spread the good news.

Being a living sacrifice suggests a need to put something before our desires and wants - Jesus, the one we are called to imitate as best we can, with the Holy Spirit's help. But there is an obvious problem for most of us, we don't want to give up the things that we have come to like, trust, put our faith in, so that we can devote more time to knowing God, serving him, going wherever he asks us to. What we often want is a mission that means we can stay at home, have our job and enjoy the fruits of it, a life not too disturbed by sacrifice.

Sacrifice comes with a call to let go, to hold loosely to some things, to offer all that we have, our bodies included, to be where God wants us. A couple of missionary friends have just gone to Central Africa, the wife being pregnant, for a short trip to see how things are and what their mission might be when the baby has been born. That, to me, is sacrificial.

Does this concept of being a living sacrifice embody other types of sacrifice? For example, opening our homes to others, or lending treasured possessions to others, or maybe making meals for others even inviting them to our table. What about giving up a significant part of our time and of our income to God's work, that would be a sacrifice? I am sure there are many ways.

In a culture where me, my and I tend to come before anything else when we are looking at life  -my new car, my holidays, my home, my security, what I want, what I deserve - it is, I think, getting more and more difficult to be living sacrifices. And yet as Tozer says, the Spirit separates us from the world and Jesus tells us:

Mat 16:24-26  Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

We must lose our lives in Christ, be living sacrifices, and then we will find the joy and wonder of true life in Christ. I think it was exactly this that allowed Paul to write that he was an offering being poured out, a sacrifice, as he imitated his Lord and Saviour who gave himself as a sacrifice for Paul and us.

Another book I have been looking at is "The Wind in the house of Islam", a detailed survey of people coming to faith in Jesus, in predominantly Muslim parts of the world. The thing that is repeated over and over is the sacrifice of many such believers, their love for Jesus has reshaped their lives, often requiring huge sacrifice and danger, but they seem not to turn from it, they embrace it. There is an example for all of us in that of being living sacrifices.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Have we lost the plot?

As I engage in debate with other Christians and theologians and church ministers, I keep wondering "have we lost the plot?" Are we spending so much time dealing with these apparently important questions and cultural skews on the gospel message that we are truly loosing the plot when it comes to Christianity? Have we lost the simplicity of the message?

We discuss all sorts of aspects of theology or things like being the best at music, inclusion, having welcoming premises, giving an attractive message or a challenging message, using the latest techno wizardry even whether we should hand out decent coffee or instant coffee before or after church activities. But how do they fit with the message we have been charged to give? Aren't all of these ancillary to the message we are called to give, the message that still seems to hit the spot for many who hear it? And are they any substitute for giving our best to giving out that message?

Jesus seems not to have had food to feed the 5000 or the 4000 let alone coffee, and yet they all ate and were satisfied, men, women and children. The sick and possessed came to him and found healing, the sinful found release and recovery through him. In Jesus the religious (and anyone else who wanted it) found a new track to follow that gave them truth and freedom and hope. He is our example.

Over the centuries theologians and other clever folks have written countless pages on their interpretation of scripture but it seems to me that understanding of scripture is open to all not a reserve for the educated. It is open to all through the work and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said ...

John 14:26  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 

Joh 16:13  But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 

I struggle at times to understand why if we are, as Christians, filled with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of unity, we cannot agree on so many areas of scripture and its interpretation.

Eph 4:2  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Eph 4:3  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Eph 4:4  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;

Jesus' prayer for the church includes this ...
Joh 17:23  I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (my emphasis)

Perhaps our biggest issue is that our learning and reading and disputing, sometimes driven by our pride in what we "learn" and apparently understand, gain greater importance than relying on the God of the universe to lead us in all truth and righteousness. My right is better than your right can be the cry."Be still and know that I am God" comes to mind.

I am not trying to offend theologians and those with higher education (after all I have what is considered higher education) but to challenge the way we seem to do things. I struggle with the way in which it seems that God can lead one group to believe that his truth means one thing while leading another to believe the exact opposite? Doesn't this suggest that we simply have not got it yet? Can we not accept that? Must we be right in our understanding to the exclusion of all other interpretations? Are we in danger of and have we (the Church) been in danger of, fitting our understanding to our desires and aspirations (and I include myself in this) or of shaping our understanding to fit the situation or our latest piece of learning?

Some of the most able preachers of the gospel and effective evangelists that I have come across in recent history seem to have been relatively uneducated and yet were greatly used by God (Tozer, Wigglesworth, Hudson Taylor are just some I recall). Often, it seems to me, the simplicity of their approach worked well.

 Have we or are we loosing the simplicity of the message we are called to proclaim by being so polarized in our views?