Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Law, Grace & Salvation

In the beginning, before Kings Saul, David and Solomon the presence of God travelled around with his people in the form of the Ark of the Covenant which carried the stone tablets and when they stopped the ark rested in a tent.
But after much controversy in Israel, when they became a settled people Solomon ended up building the Jerusalem Temple as a place for God’s presence to live.
Then when Jesus came, God’s presence was perceived by those who believed in him, to reside fully within Jesus Christ.
After Jesus ascended to Heaven he promised that God’s Spirit, his very presence, would be poured out on all believers.
The result over the three thousand year history since Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem is that the Temple of the Holy Spirit, his very presence is no longer in a building made of stone but in a people. God’s very presence again travels with his people just as He did in the days before the Jerusalem Temple was built – not in a box but in our hearts.
We are the Temple, and we are made up of people of every race, nation and language in the world, so the prophesy made by Solomon in his dedication address found its fulfilment in the church – the people of God.
At the centre of the Temple lay the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments representing the law of God. That law was fulfilled in Christ by the law of Love which is written on our hearts.
Now contrary to what some may think Jesus did not soften the demands of the written law, he actually tightened them up. The law of love is much harder to follow than the written law and is much more stringent and profound.
I think 99% of us can follow the command “Do not murder” or “Thou shall not kill” but Jesus says even if you are angry you have committed murder in your heart. How many of us genuinely love our enemies and pray for them from the bottom of our heart? Who amongst us if we have two of something will automatically give one of them away?
The law of love is much, much, harder to follow than the written law and goes so much deeper.
The law of love actually reveals to us just how far we are from perfection and it is the law of love that convinces us that we are all sinners in one way or another in that we all fall far short of the glory and the Holiness of God.
This new Temple of the Holy Spirit, the church community is a collection not of saints but  of forgiven sinners, who, knowing how far short we fall are filled with gratitude that God’s Grace and forgiveness have been showered upon us, whilst attempting always to reach to the heights all fulfil the demands of the law of love.
You know that we are forgiven and made right with God through faith in Christ, and not through fulfilling all of the law – either the written law or the law of love?
It is that gospel, that good news, that Paul is so angry about being smothered by people who are trying to water down and pervert the gospel in his letter to the Galatians.
The perverters of the good news were telling people that the only way they could be right with God is by obeying all the commands of the written law – in effect become Jews – before they could become Christian.
Paul was livid and tells them straight. There is no alternative gospel. The gospel he preaches comes direct from Jesus Christ himself, given to him in person on the road to Damascus.
It is your faith in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross that saves you, not adhering or fulfilling the law of either variety. It is God’s Grace, revealed on the cross, available to all that come to him that saves us. Limitless forgiveness and limitless love.
The result of Jesus revealing to us the depth and purpose of the law is to give us something glorious and perfect to aim for with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, but also to convince us that we need his saving grace because of our own efforts we just cannot do it.
The glory of God is that if we acknowledge our need of acceptance and forgiveness and his comfort he saves us and comes to live within us.
That is how the Temple of the Holy Spirit grows.  God’s perfection and holiness is set before us. We reach out to fulfil it as far as we are able, we fail, but have no fear, God will pick you up, dust you down and set you back on the narrow path, for another go.
We pray that when this happens we are being perfected as we try and fail, try and fail, and then try and try again. God is merciful but God is just. He needs us to keep looking towards the light.
God’s grace is Free but wasn’t cheap. To presume on God’s grace, to not even try, is what I think is meant by blaspheming the Holy Spirit and as Mark says in his gospel is the one sin that will never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).   
But we have no need to fear. Perfect Love casts out fear. Hear what Jesus says in John’s Gospel;

14 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;[a] believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?[b] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The eternal three

Today is Trinity Sunday and the Trinity describes who God is as He has been revealed to Christians by Jesus Christ – a unity of character and purpose but with three constituent parts  and we heard three readings today which were included to lead us deeper into that mystery.
We started in the Old Testament in the book of Proverbs and in chapter 8 which is a description of Wisdom. Actually it is wisdom who is talking. Can wisdom talk?
Wisdom is a highly prized concept in the Bible. Indeed, in the Bible, wisdom is a divine attribute. But when you hear chapter 8 we see that wisdom is more than a desirable attribute.
Indeed the book of proverbs is attributed, if only in part to Solomon, who gained favour with God for asking only for a wise and discerning mind instead of fame or riches. God responded by bestowing great wisdom on Solomon and the fame and riches as well.
Wisdom was begotten by God and was present with God at the beginning of creation   articulated perfectly and poetically in chapter 8. Indeed, God created through wisdom who is called a master workman in verse 30 and in verse 31, wisdom “rejoices in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man”.
When you read this I hope you can see that far from being an “it”, or just a “concept” wisdom is described more like a person.
Someone who was present, who worked, who rejoices, who delights!
Someone who was there at the beginning begotten by God.  Genesis 1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The first word for God in the Bible, Elohim in Hebrew is plural. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. A Christian can say that the Trinity is there in the opening verse of the Bible. And later in Genesis 1 verse 28 God says “Let us make man in our image”
I hope now some of you can begin to see why this passage is included for Trinity Sunday. And why Christians have always equated Jesus as the incarnation of wisdom who was there, as a person at the dawn of creation.
In John’s famous prologue “In the beginning was the word and the word was God” the word for Word is “Logos” which can also mean wisdom. In the beginning was wisdom.....and wisdom was made flesh.  
As I always say, the most important church in the whole of Christendom in the East, dedicated to Jesus Christ was the Hagia Sofia - the Holy Wisdom.
Now in chapter 5 of Romans we hear Paul say that we Christians have – not will have, or will inherit, but have as a present possession faith, hope and love. Hope as ever in the NT is used as a description of a confident conviction.
Its inclusion today of course is that this peace hope and love involves the three persons of the Trinity. These gifts come about as the result of the action of God, through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. The three persons of God are essential in the story of our salvation.
And so finally to John, who the week after Pentecost wants to inform us about the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus sent by the Father.
This is a continuing project.
The Spirit will guide us into the truth. The Holy Spirit is our link, our continuing living access to Jesus and through Jesus to God the Father. The Holy Spirit is the promise of God given to all that ask.
Now Jesus said that He is the truth, so the Spirit leads us into the light and wisdom of Christ who speaks only what the Father says to him.
This means that if any supposed new revelation leads us away from what has already been revealed or directly contradicts what has been revealed to us in the Bible then we can be sure that it is a false revelation. We are to be guided into all that Jesus is because it was impossible in his short ministry to deal with every eventuality.
God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His spirit will lead us ever deeper into his wisdom – the wisdom who was there at the very beginning begotten by the Father and “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man”
But if you can remember just one phrase this morning let it be this;

God is as Jesus is and we have access to God by the Holy Spirit.   

Monday, 9 May 2016

Cry Freedom

Freedom is the watchword of the day.
The slave girl was set free from an evil spirit, Paul and Silas were miraculously set free from prison, and the jailor was set free from his bondage to sin suffering and death by asking to be baptised.
Salvation isn’t a word much used outside of church nowadays so what does it mean to say “I am saved”?
One meaning is to be set free from our addictions, our fears, and our self-centredness.
Another clue is in our English word salvation. The root of the word is “salve”. A salve is an ointment that soothes and heals, so salvation carries the notion of being made well, being healed, and being made whole again.
We are healed from all that divides us. The division between ourselves and God is healed – we are one as the reading from John spells out today, the division between ourselves and  others is healed for we are all children of God, and all our internal divisions are healed.
Being set free can be being freed from a physical bondage like Paul and Silas , or more pertinently being set free from spiritual bondage like the slave girl or the jailor.
So salvation is personal wholeness and freedom. Is that not what everybody craves nowadays? That is what we offer and yet we are so bad at communicating that fact people would never think to look at the church for such things – they look everywhere else first – from Mindfulness to Buddhism, to self-help, to the acquisition of “things” to drugs, anything but in that boring out of date building called a church.  
We are absolutely terrible at articulating what we are about.
But Paul and the apostles and the witness of the early church is that the key to salvation and all the benefits that brings is found in the name of Jesus Christ alone. That is where you will find freedom and wholeness.
It was in the name of Jesus Christ that the slave girl was set free, and when the jailor asked “What must I do to be saved?” Paul says “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household”.
There is a past, present and future aspect to salvation. You are set free from all your sins by being forgiven and set free from all fear of judgement; In the present you are positively set free to live the life God wants for you in freedom and security, and the future aspect is that you can look forward to a glorious future – eternal life in the new Jerusalem, where heaven and earth become one.   
Salvation is fantastic news with great benefits. It is “Good news” which is what “Gospel” means.
It is worth having and in Revelation it tells us who this is for. And in verse 17 of Revelation 22 it tells us. It is for everyone that wants it – for the spiritually thirsty.
“The Spirit and the Bride say “come”, and let the one who hears say “come” (inviting others). And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”
And along the way we are transformed -  we have to shed one way or another the evil in our hearts. Just as Paul drove out the evil spirit from the slave girl, coming to the saving Grace of Jesus entails him driving out all evil from our lives.
The offer is free, but there is a kind of “cost” if you want to put it like that. We have to get rid of all the dirt in our lives, for God is a Holy and righteous God and cannot bear such evil in His presence.
Those who accept this free offer have the right to the tree of life and we enter the New Jerusalem by the front gates, but that passage continues in verse 15,
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood”
Everyone is welcome but you have to change and be transformed and ditch evil things as part of that invitation. And it is the Spirit that helps us in that task.
Spelled out in our reading from John 17. 20-23 is that the nature of our freedom, our healing, our salvation is being spiritually joined to God in Christ.
There is so much there regarding our mutual indwelling – I in them and you in me – the healing of division that I’ve already mentioned.
If we were to continue in our evil ways that would reflect on the character of God. We would be saying this is what God is like.
If someone were to say they were saved – at one with God -  and then proceeded to cheat on their wife, or undermine a friend, or worshipped money, or lied to people, we would be saying “This is what God is like”. Those who have ears to hear....
Salvation my friends is being set Free and being healed, made whole again. We drink freely from the fresh water of life without cost.
It is guaranteed, underwritten by the promises of God made through Jesus Christ.
“Jesus who testifies to these things says “Surely I am coming soon” Amen come Lord Jesus. The Grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen.”

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

When does the joy start?

At the end of Matthew’s gospel 28: 19-20 there is what is known as the Great Commission.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always to the end of the age”
All the elements in that Great Commission were spoken of today in our readings.
In our reading from Acts today we have documented one of the stages of that process of taking the gospel to all nations and a really important one. Moving from its Jewish base in Israel, then spreading to Samaria and Asia Minor, an apostle went to to Egypt and Thomas went to India.
Here we have Paul, having been as far as Cyprus but evangelising in what is current day Turkey being directed for the first time to Europe, something that would change the whole history of Europe and Christianity and henceforth the world.
The supreme, prescient importance of Christianity’s expansion into Europe became Crystal clear 700 years later when Christianity was largely and savagely wiped out or oppressed and subjugated from all its traditional strongholds in North Africa and the Middle East by the Muslim Arab invasions.
What Acts makes clear is that this expansion into Europe was urgent and by divine will. It related that Paul was “forbidden” to speak the word of God in Asia and God spoke to him in a vision in the night. A man from Macedonia appeared to him and said “Come here to Macedonia to help us”
Once in Europe the first convert is a woman called Lydia. As I wrote in our pew sheet notes it is often said that women were especially attracted to Christianity because of the enhanced status that the new faith accorded them, and in many cultures that would indeed be true but Lydia was already an independent woman of means, a trader in high quality merchandise who was mobile and travelled between Macedonia and Thyatira and was the head of her household.
This was not uncommon in the Greek world. No, it is obvious that Lydia’s conversion wasn’t about something as pragmatic as women’s rights - she responding to something much deeper in the gospel itself.
She was a worshipper of God – a God fearer – who was not Jewish but was attracted to the idea of the one God and the high moral standards of the Jews which is why she was at the “place of prayer”. Who knows what in Paul’s preaching touched her soul, we don’t know.
Perhaps, as a gentile outsider it was the thought of full inclusion. Perhaps it was the promise of forgiveness for all her wrongdoing, perhaps she had lost her husband and was taken by the notion of meeting him again in the future.
All these wonderful promises are either implicit or explicit in our vision in Revelation today. Which one draws you to the Christian faith. Which one sets your heart on fire?
What do you hope for your own personal future and that of the whole world?
In Revelation we have this new Jerusalem introduced in last week’s reading  further described. It is based on Ezekiel's new Jerusalem (Ezek. chapters 40-48) but with huge amendments. This city is for everyone, not just for Jews, and the city is not a place but a community. And there is no temple because there is no need for a special place to meet God, for God and the lamb are everywhere present.
The gates are never shut - access is always available. And it is open to all nations to walk in the city's perpetual light and he healed by the leaves of the tree of life. Revelation has its fair share of violence and hatred as befits a book written at a time of great persecution but in the end there is a wide and generous hope and joy. 
Perhaps in the end it was the restoration of hope and renewed joy written about in Revelation that led Lydia to want to be baptised.
Which leads us to the interesting question of how much joy does the resurrection faith give to each and every one of us. If any of us were not baptised already, which part of the faith would really motivate you to get baptised now at our ages?
So from Matthew’s Great Commission we have dealt with making disciples and baptism but Jesus ends by saying “And behold I am with you to the end of the age”.
But how can he be? He died and even if he rose he went to heaven to be with God didn’t he, so how can he possibly be with us forever?
Well John 14 tells us; “I will send you another helper to be with you forever” says Jesus
The Holy Spirit is God Himself with us. Jesus is with us through his Holy Spirit. When you receive the Spirit Jesus says
“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me and I in you. There is a mutual indwelling”
“Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (14:21)
Does that not stir your soul, Does that not excite you? Jesus will manifest himself in you by the Spirit who is the Spirit of truth.
This, I hope is the excitement, the joy, the presence that I believe Lydia felt that compelled her to want to be baptised.
There is a Christian poet called Adrian Plass who relates what I suspect is the feelings of many Christians in his doleful poem called “When does the joy start?”
When do the clouds part
When does the dawn break
When does the Earth shake
When does the choir sing
When do the bells ring
When will I rise with him? 

That time comes with the event that liturgically we have been working up to – the completion of the Easter miracle – Pentecost.

That’s when you’ll see me
That’s when my star falls
That’s when my God calls
Calls out to my heart
That’s when the joy starts
That’s when I’ll rise with Him.