Sermon Series

We begin our series of sermons on “Church, what’s it all about?” looking at ‘Welcome’. A fitting theme for our Epiphany service; as in the very act of God calling the wise men to search for the Messiah, God was confirming that Jesus would be a messiah who welcomed all, not just the Jews. We are so used to hearing the story of the wise men visiting it is easy to forget that they came from a different land and were naturally outsiders to Jewish culture as much as the Romans were. This story nudges us to question ‘who is the good news of Jesus for?’ I hope we recognise the good news of Jesus as good news for everyone. In response then we, who have already embraced this good news, are curators for others who may find welcome in it too.

What is it to be welcoming? There are so many aspects to answering this question from the practical “smile and say hello” to a much deeper understanding of what it is to accept all people. Regardless of their culture (as with the wise men) or their social status (as with the shepherds). In some ways welcome is a state of mind where we choose, as individuals and as a Christian community to extend acceptance and grace to people just as we find them. Not only when a person tentatively enters church for the first time but acceptance and grace for all people at all times of day or night and in all places we might encounter them. This of course is how Jesus welcomed people throughout his ministry and is one of his most compelling.

It leads us to ask “How are we welcomed?” Theologically we are welcomed because God says so. In Johns gospel Jesus prays for us all as believers that we might be welcomed and brought to complete unity with God, knowing that we are loved as much as God loved his only son Jesus (17:23). We are welcomed by God, despite our constant and repeated shortcomings we remain welcomed, unequivocally. “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit, fruit that will last and so whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command; love each other.” These are some of the last words Jesus shares with his disciples and we too are disciples, followers of Jesus. We have been welcomed by perfect love and are in turn asked to extend that love without judgment to strangers and friends (and enemies) alike. Freely we have received, freely we will give.

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Pastoral Letters 1, 2 and 3 John. God is Light, God is Love and God is Life

When we live through particular events we gain firsthand experience and knowledge. So when others begin to doubt or even say the event didn’t happen, we are well placed to speak out as witnesses and to put the record straight.

The traditional view is that the pastoral letters 1, 2 and 3 John were written by the Apostle John in about AD 85-95 some years before he was in exile on the island of Patmos. At the time, John was an older man and thought to be living in Ephesus. He may well have been the only one of the original apostles still alive.

We remember that John was an eye witness to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. John had seen, heard and touched Jesus; he had walked and talked with Jesus, saw him heal, heard him teach, watched him die, met him risen, and saw him ascend into to heaven.

1 John was written to a number of gentile churches. John’s purpose was to reassure the Christians in their faith, to counter false teaching concerning the reality of sin (1 John 1:6-8) and to emphasize that Jesus was God in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). He wanted them to know the reality of God in their lives, to assure them of eternal life and encourage them to have continual fellowship or walk with God.

Key verse is ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ 1 John 5:13.

The letter has a similar style to John’s gospel, using contrasts such as light and darkness, truth and error, God and Satan, life and death, love and hate. The main themes of the letter are God is Light, God is Love and God is Life – I pictured them as three giant ‘L’ plates hanging over the front door of the church!

  • God is Light – Pure, holy, true, reliable – no darkness. We need to live or ‘walk’ in the light of God’s presence (1 John 2:10); and so, when we sin, we confess our sins and receive forgiveness (1 John 1:5-10).
  • God is Love – ‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ (1 John 3:1). God loves us and we are part of God’s family. John stresses that love comes from God and the importance of expressing that love for others in a practical way. ‘Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.’ (1 John 3:18).
  • God is Life – Eternal life; and a way of life to be lived out now. ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life;’ (1 John 5:11-12). Plus, we can be sure that God will listen to our prayers whenever we ask for anything in line with God’s will (1 John 5:14-15).

Overall, 1 John reminded me that sharing our faith experiences with one another can have a positive effect and encourage others, particularly those who are younger in the faith.

The Letters 2 and 3 John are very short and written to specific people. 2 John is addressed to Cyria and her children (although some think John is referring to a church), warning them to watch out for false teachers who don’t acknowledge that Jesus was God in the flesh, and asking (or rather, commanding) them to walk in love and obedience.

3 John made me smile. It is written to a friend, Gaius, and contrasts the attitudes of Gaius in offering hospitality and Demetrius in being truthful, with the rather dictatorial, self appointed leader Dotrephes, who I imagine, judging from the tone of the letter, is likely to receive the Alex Ferguson ‘hair-drier’ treatment (or extra coaching) from John when they next meet!

Have blessed week!

2 Peter

Second Epistle of Peter

Much of the second epistle of Peter was written to warn Christians about the dangers of listening to ‘false teachers’ and to encourage them to deepen their faith in and their knowledge of Christ.

This second epistle can be generally divided into three parts, Guidance, Warnings and Hope.

Guidance – If our faith is real, it will be evident in our faithful behaviour. If people are diligent in Christian growth, they won’t fall away or be deceived by false teachers. Growth is essential. It begins with faith and culminates in love for others. To keep growing we need to know God, keep on following him, and remember what he taught us. We must remain diligent in faithful obedience and Christian growth.

Warnings – Peter warns the church to beware of false teachers. Many of these teachers were proud of their position, promoted sexual sin, and advised against keeping the Ten Commandments. Peter countered them by pointing to the Spirit-inspired Scriptures as our authority. Christians need discernment to be able to resist false teachers. God can rescue us from their lies if we are diligent in prayer, remain true to his Word, the Bible, and reject those who distort the truth.

And finally Hope for Christ’s return and the New Kingdom. As Christians, our hope is in this promise. The cure for complacency, lawlessness, and heresy is found in the confident assurance that Christ will return. Christians must keep on trusting and resist the pressure to give up waiting for Christ’s return, we should always be ready.

From the Good News Bible –chapter 3, vs, 17 – But you, my friends, already know this. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not be led away by the errors of lawless people and fall from your safe position. 18 But continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, now and forever! Amen.

The First Letter of Peter

The First Letter of Peter does not focus on the teaching of Jesus; rather, it rejoices in the living hope which makes people like us, born after Christ, get out of bed in the morning!

However wonderful and inspiring Christ’s teaching was, if He had not physically risen from the dead we would have no grounds for believing that a once-for-all saving work had been performed. By rising from the dead, Christ makes it clear that, however dark the tunnel, if we persevere, there will be light at the end of it. Furthermore, to share in His suffering is a privilege which draws us more closely to Him. To suffer for Christ’s sake, especially when the suffering is unwarranted, is a high calling.

Before Calvary, Peter had, of all the disciples, been the most opposed to Jesus setting His face to Jerusalem, but now, post-Easter, Peter realises that Jesus needed to die in order to show us that, through His resurrection, we too can conquer. We are baptised into the life of Christ. If He can do it, so can we! That is our “living hope”.

This puts suffering in a new light. “Even gold” Peter says “is tested by fire”. That is what makes it the precious metal it is. We are not to run away from suffering but embrace it. Christ’s suffering is therapeutic, for “by His wounds we are healed”. In a nutshell, Peter says, “Christ died … in order to lead you to God. He was put to death physically, but made alive spiritually”.

The likelihood is that this letter was sent out to Christian congregations from Rome in around AD 65. Despite troubled times, Peter is full of encouragement. Although “the devil, like a roaring lion, is looking for someone to devour”, we are not to be fearful, because the foundation of our life is Jesus, a “living stone”. For others this stone is a stumbling block; for us it is the ground of faith. .

Today, the enemy of faith is not so much physical persecution as society’s indifference or incredulity that anyone could believe in a God who suffers and invites us to do the same. But whatever form opposition takes, Peter encourages us to be resolute, not to give up. We are to put away hypocrisy and jealousy and not to descend to insults. We are to resemble babies, eager for pure milk.

There is ongoing debate as to whether Peter was the author of this epistle. The views he expresses sound more like Saint Paul than Saint Peter. There is also the question of style. The letter is written in sophisticated Greek with a rich fund of metaphors. Could this really have been written by an unschooled Galilean fisherman? But it matters not who is the author. It is the message that counts. With Jesus alive in our hearts, we can conquer the world!

The Book of Ecclesiastes

A Book for our time ?

“Down to earth” ?

See life from a human perspective ?

The Book of Ecclesiastes is a piece of “Wisdom Literature” composed during the Greek period around about 300 B.C.. The book is also known as “Koheleth” or “Quoheleth”, which can be translated as “Teacher”, “Preacher”, “Speaker” or “Philosopher”.

The opening verse might be seen to suggest that the book was composed by King Solomon, son of King David.

This seems to be a rather odd book. At times the author could be described as agnostic [unsure about God’s existence], atheist [does not believe in God’s existence], or a believer in God ! He pours scorn on any sense of security and certainty in life, on people’s actions, on politics, on love and pleasure. Everything he sees and experiences is vain or empty and useless. He warns us not to take ourselves too seriously and to shed all illusions we have about life. Whilst the book may seem rather disjointed, many of the statements and questions it poses resonate with many of the feelings and views of the secular western world of both the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the composer seems to conclude that there is a God, who can and does inject joy into every dimension of life; a God in whom human beings will find ultimate satisfaction and eternal life.

Ecclesiates is not a long book and it is worth reading from beginning to end; not least, because you will stumble upon some well-known texts and feelings which are articulated today by ordinary folk at the bus stop, at a funeral gathering, or in the pub ! Some texts have found their way into everyday English conversation.

If you do not have time to read the book, here are some texts which caught my eye :

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanity. All is vanity.” [Chapter 1 verse 2]

“Everything has it’s time” [Chapter 3 verses 1-8]

“And though one might prevail against another: two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” [Chapter 4 verse 12]

“dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.” [Chapter 5 verse 3]

“It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools.” [Chapter 7 verse 5]

“Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” [Chapter 7 verse 20]

“Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.” [Chapter 9 verse 38]

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.” [Chapter 12 verse 13]

Job

Job is a long book: 42 chapters. Reading between the lines you may feel that I think it too long: I do. If it consisted of lots of stories such as in the Samuel books, that would satisfy me. But it has one theme: that of THEODICY: “the justice of God in the light of human suffering.” (NIV NOTES).

Never be put off something please, by someone else’s negative comments: always experience it for yourself: our likes differ. I am not complaining about the subject, just the time taken to articulate it.

The book was written some 2,500 years ago, within the context of Israelite culture and religion. Job lives within a tribal culture, the patriarch of the tribe and he is concerned with its needs, its growth, in terms of his descendants, land, possessions, and prosperity.

He is as good a person as many of us, perhaps even better.

The story: there is a wager in heaven and the just and well off Job has everything taken from him. Job suffers. Three friends “console” him. I am expecting that you will read the book anyway, and then you will understand why I put “console” in inverted commas.

Job bitterly laments what has happened to him, but the friends defend God (It was believed that all good and bad were meted out by God, in a reaction perhaps to people’s good or bad behaviour). They argue, a lot until Job ends with an oath of innocence. We are I would say, very much on Job’s side. God (or Yahweh as He is called ) responds in two long speeches and overwhelms Job into silence. They live happily ever after because Job’s fortunes are restored.

I had thought that one of my favourite verses was in Job, but have not traced it so far: “Who is he who speaks without knowledge?” says God. That makes me smile because some of us do don’t we?

So, my chosen verse from this unusual book, is from chapter 19 v 25: ”I know that my redeemer lives” and I love to hear it sung in Handel’s Messiah.

Esther

Esther is a book about a young Jewish girl catapulted unexpectedly to the dizzy heights of Queen in a land not her own when her people were in exile. A very unexpected turn of events for her and perhaps and experience we can all relate to; finding our lives going in a direction we least expected.

Esther is one of only two books that have a female name as their title, Ruth being the other. The book of Esther has an interesting History in that the original text includes no word for God and when the Church Fathers were considering what text to include in our bible, as we know it, this book was the topic of some debate. Although no pronoun for God is offered the sense of God’s presence supporting and guiding his people and their safety is implicit.

The narrative of the book is set within the Persian Empire when Jews were still exiles from Israel. The events occur some 30 years before the events of Nehemiah even thought the book of Nehemiah comes before Esther in its biblical order. Esther finds herself queen after King Xerxes has displaced a previous queen for not following the King’s orders. In the message version it is said of the original Queen Vashti “Let the king give her royal position to a woman who knows her place” it is ironic therefore that with guidance form her uncle Esther finds the courage to speak out and ask the King to intervene for her people including asking him to change his mind. The king has been convinced by a jealous advisor to kill all the Jews and it is Esther who respectfully encourages King Xerxes to change his mind.

If I imagine a time when all Christians are persecuted and an edict is in place for us all to be executed I imagine feeling immense fear, for my family, our whole community and myself. I wonder would you or I find the courage to act as Esther does and place herself in danger in order to save us all? In chapter 4 Esther doubts her ability to make any difference and her uncle counsels her “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place…and who knows but that you have come to a Royal position such as this” 4:14. Life does take us in unexpected directions but who knows perhaps those unexpected twists are opening doors for the greater glory of our creator and redeemer God. There will always be people who plot harm for others just as there is in the book of Esther, and God will always place His spirit filled children in places where we can make a difference through our faithful actions just as Esther does.

Esther and her uncle Mordecai recognize the cooperate identity of the children of God and seek the best for all of them, to the potential detriment of the own safety. I hope, were I in a similar position I would do the same. Who knows, perhaps we find ourselves in our current life circumstance for a time such as this.

Ezra

Ezra is a continuation of 2 Chronicles, the last verses of 2 Chronicles being repeated in Ezra 1:1 – 3. Along with the books of Nehemiah and Esther, Ezra covers the final part of the 17 Old Testament Jewish history books, and tells how the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to the land of Judah and in particular to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple, city and land. The return seems to have been in three stages: the main party, who returned with Zerubbabel in 538/7 BC, then those who returned with Ezra in about 458 BC and the final group with Nehemiah in 445 BC. Ezra and Nehemiah span the reigns of five Persian kings.

The Babylonian empire, had now been defeated by the Persians under the leadership of Cyrus who, with his successors exercised a policy of allowing captives and minority ethnic groups to return to their homelands. Some, but not all of the Jews returned, mainly people from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah from the former southern kingdom and reinstated the land of Judah and Israel.

The repatriated exiles began to resettle their land and to re-establish the worship of their God. They set to work rebuilding the Jerusalem temple, restoring it from the ruins of the former one. The worship, rituals, customs, sacrifices and requirements of the old Mosaic Law were reintroduced. They told their story again, no easy job because Hebrew, the language of their scriptures, was now dead and the spoken language of the day had changed to Aramaic.

The book of Ezra is a mixture of elation and joy at the prospect of returning to their much cherished and God promised land, and frustration by organised opposition and the continual physical, emotional and spiritual hardships involved in reconstructing the land. Rebuilding the temple was massively delayed by opposition and appeals to the king (Darius). Old squabbles and arguments struggled to control and direct the task. It was not until Ezra (the leader of the second party of exiles) returned with a mandate from the king (Artaxerxes) that progress continued. The book ends as Ezra tackled the long standing and knotty problem of mixed marriages (chs. 9 &10). However, it led to confession, repentance, and a new resolve to start again, and restore the ways of the one true God. The scene was now set for Nehemiah to take things a stage further.

Ezra is an example of Israel’s grit, determination and tenacity, rebuilding the nation against all the odds. The verse I have chosen is the joyful voice of the people as they achieved an important milestone – the completion of the temple foundations:

“and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

‘For he is God, for his steadfast love endures for ever’ ”

Worship by the people. Worship from the heart. This verse reminds me that we all need to repent, refresh, renew and rededicate our lives to God from time to time.

Colossians

Paul’s letter to the Colossians

When a top manager or star player leaves a football club, the team often struggles; unplug your washing machine, and it doesn’t work, cut off the head, and the body dies. Whether for leadership, power to live or life itself, connections are vital! Colossians is a book about connections – our connection to God and each other.

The letter was written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Colosse, a city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) located on the Lycus River. It was written in about AD 60 during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Colosse was close to Laodicea and Hierapolis and about 100 miles from Ephesus. It had a large Jewish population, and as a trading centre on the route from Ephesus on the Aegan Sea to the Euphrates River, it was a cross-road for ideas and religions. Paul had never been to Colosse and it’s likely that the church there had been founded by Epaphras, one of Paul’s converts.

Paul’s purpose in writing to the Colossians was to make a connection with a group of people he had never met, to address a number of diverse heresies or false teachings, and to encourage them.

While Paul never explicitly describes the false teaching, it seems that the church at Colosse was under attack from false teachers in the church who were (amongst other things) denigrating the deity of Jesus and teaching that He was not actually God. Paul was concerned that this false teaching threatened to draw the believers away from faith in Christ and disconnect them from God. It must have been very confusing for the people!

So Paul writes to refute these false teachings. His desire was that the church would know God in His greatness and glory, rather than in the deficient view given to them by the false teachers. Focusing on Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency in all things, Paul describes Christ as the image of God, the Creator, the pre-existent sustainer of all things, the head of the church, the fullness of God in bodily form and the reconciler of all things through his death on the cross (1v15-22).

Paul’s message was that only by being connected with Christ through faith can anyone have eternal life and only through a continuing connection with him can anyone have power for living. Some key verses are:“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ who is the head over every power and authority.” Col 2v9-10.

Paul also emphasized Christian believers’ connections with each other and Christ’s body on earth (2v19). We have been raised with Christ; therefore, we are to set our minds on things above and make Christ our life (3v1-4). As God’s people we are to clothe ourselves with the qualities that are motivated by Christian love such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and to forgive one another (3v12-14). In short, our faith in Jesus Christ should transform the relationships we have in every area of our lives—in our homes, our churches, and our world. I find that a real challenge to my discipleship!

Foot-note: in recent days, missiles have been fired over Japan and world leaders have called each other names, there was a bomb on a tube train in London, destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean, earthquakes in Mexico and debate over ‘Brexit’. In this context I commend to you Colossians 1v17 “He (Jesus) is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Whatever is happening in the world around us, the message of Colossians is to stay connected to Jesus and each other, and live the life of love.

Have blessed week!

Philippians

Philippi was a Roman colony containing so few Jews that it had no synagogue. Paul planted a church there on his second missionary journey. Its first members comprised of a Gentile business woman, a slave girl and a jailor. (Acts 16) As a devout Jew before his conversion, Paul would have thanked God daily that he had not been born a woman, a slave or a Gentile!

Paul wrote to the Philippians some years later when he was imprisoned in Rome, probably under house arrest and guarded by soldiers, but it is known as a letter of joy. For Paul, ‘rejoice’ is an active verb, not a feeling, and it occurs many times in this letter. Joy is different from pleasure or happiness because joy does not depend on circumstances. Even chained to soldiers, Paul could still rejoice because he has Christ.

He expresses his life’s motto: ‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain’. (1:21) Because of this, he ‘rejoices in the Lord’ and encourages all his readers, in whatever situation they find themselves, to do the same. As CS Lewis remarked centuries later: ‘Joy is the serious business of heaven.’

What the reader cannot miss in this letter is the central place Christ has in Paul’s life and the way he urges his readers to give Christ the central place in their lives too. Paul had impeccable credentials as a member of God’s people, the Israelites, but he considered ‘everything a loss compared to the supreme value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (3:8) For Paul, ‘knowing’ meant more than knowing about Christ, it meant knowing him personally and then knowing him ‘more and more’. Paul knew that only this kind of relationship transformed lives and produced joy so he encourages the Philippians to follow his example.

In chapter 2, verses 5-11, Paul outlines the incarnation of the eternal God in the person of his Son, regarded by many as an early Christian hymn and today used in Common Worship as a Confession of Faith. The verses end with the very first Creed of the Christian Church: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. However, these words were penned by Paul not just to demonstrate Christ’s deity, but to show Christ’s total humility – an attitude Paul was urging the Christians at Philippi to emulate. Like churches today, there were arrogant members with their own agendas, unresolved differences and divisions, so Paul writes: ‘In humility, consider others better than yourselves.’ (2:3)

Throughout the letter, there are nuggets of practical advice for all believers, not just for the Philippians of the first century: not to worry about anything; to stand firm in the faith; not to be frightened by opposition; to pray with thanksgiving; to think about good things; to be content in any and every situation; to trust God to meet everyday needs – and to always rejoice in the Lord!