The Wedding Banquet

Whether we like it or not, I think everyone tends to have their own standards of right and wrong and of justice. What is right for one person may be very wrong for another and there is often commentary and debate in the media regarding whether a criminal got a fair or just sentence, or got ‘what was coming to them.’

The thing is though, in this country and on this side of heaven we uphold the ‘rule of law’ and the British judicial system and as such we entrust right, fair and just sentences to be given out by a judge who is far more aware of both the bigger picture and the context and detail than we are, even if there are times when just like the rest of us, they are very human.

There is a problem though in that the media sometimes comes across as being like a ‘final arbitrator’ as if they have the right to take justice into their own hands and this at times leads to people becoming very sceptical of authority and very sceptical of the fairness of the judicial system. It somehow diminishes and undermines authority and we only need to look around the world and see the consequences in countries where the rule of law is absent. It is all too easy to take a stand against something without ever having the courage or wisdom to stand for something.

In the book of Romans we are told “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)

I think it is balanced to read this in the light and context of 1 Timothy 2 which says “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” (1 Timothy 2:1-6)

We are to submit to governing authorities BUT we are also to pray for governing authorities and specifically that they may allow us to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. When I wonder was the last time we prayed for governing authorities in our personal prayer lives?

The scepticism of earthly authority though can escalate into a scepticism of heavenly authority and also a complacency. We sometimes see the church becoming like the media – giving a clear message of what it is against rather than a clear message of what it is for. It’s all too easy for the church to formulate its own view of what is right, fair and just. Yes the church has an authority but it also has a responsibility and accountability to God…it is HIS church after all.

In our reading today, we are told of the great wedding banquet. And it is to this banquet that specific guests were invited. And we are told very plainly that “they refused to come.” We have all heard the saying “you can lead a horse to water…but you can’t make it drink.”

In what way is their refusal honouring and respecting the authority and sovereignty of the King? On hearing of their refusal the King was both gracious and magnanimous and once again issued the invitation with a plea…“ I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.

It is quite astonishing then that some paid no attention and went off, and still worse others seized his servants, treated them shamefully and killed them. Such action is an act or declaration of war. No wonder then that the King was enraged and the murderers destroyed.

As a result of this all were invited to the wedding banquet – people from the highways and byways and the street corners – both the good and the bad. In this we are reminded of what Jesus had said earlier, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) We are told that the wedding banquet was filled.

Like so many parables and prophecies this is something that spoke clearly into the context in which it was first shared – but also into the context we find ourselves in today. At the time it would have spoken very harshly to the people of God who should have known better – and how the Jewish people rejected the invitation of the heavenly King, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and ultimately the ‘unrighteous’ gentiles were to receive the invitation. And today it perhaps speaks into the scepticism of authority and complacency we sometimes see in the church.

The wedding garments that we might wear come from us seeking to have the mind of Christ and be clothed in Christ and his righteousness; and the only way we can do that is to submit to Christ. The garment is a metaphor for righteousness, reminding us of where it says in Revelation ““Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)” (Revelation 19:7-8)

All are invited, but all are to be clothed in Christ who is “the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through him.” (John 14:6) We cannot get into heaven in our own merit; we are called into righteousness and that righteousness can only come from Christ and Christ alone. For the person to seek to enter into the wedding banquet in their own clothes is to scorn the host’s provision of wedding garments thus insulting the host and showed a lack of respect and a terrible complacency. There are overtones of Isaiah here. “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) That is the human predicament: we are literally not fit to be seen before God, let alone to enjoy the feast of his kingdom.

We have such a privilege – we can’t make an excuse that we didn’t know any better – we are children of God and ambassadors of Christ. Do we refuse to respond to the call of the heavenly King? Do we treat shamefully those who seek to spur us on in our faith? Do we take the law into our own hands? Do we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)? Divine election is a mystery…and we should not seek to question our heavenly judge “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

But as I have said before that there will be three surprises in heaven:

  1. The people who aren’t there
  2. The people who are there
  3. That in God’s grace we too might be there

But this sense of election works together with, rather than against, the reality of human responsibility, free will and the choice that we have just like the people initially invited to the wedding. God will not force people against their free will and individual responsibility. We can accept the invitation or we can refuse the invitation and treat those giving us the invitation shamefully. Not everyone is receptive to Jesus and his message and not all respond appropriately with a discipleship that brings forth the righteousness of the Kingdom. All are called; not everyone is elect.

The wedding banquet is ready; let’s pray that we might be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and seek first his Kingdom and His righteousness.

Amen

Coming home to harvest

There are times for all of us when we want to do our own thing, or when we want to go our own way. Times when perhaps we lose sight of the bigger picture or the wider context. We all know the song “My Way”. It says it all really. Even though penned in the 20th century, in the 21st century that song speaks into our own sense of independence and I understand it is the most popular song at funeral services today.

It isn’t wrong to be independent – if we have a dependency on others it isn’t necessarily always healthy – although granted at times something like illness can force us to become dependent on others – but that is only because during those times we simply have no other choice. But apart from those times when we need to receive care and assistance, to become overly dependent on someone can cause us to lose sight of our humanity.

As children grow up they certainly become more and more independent; it is no longer cool to hang out with mum and dad (or so my eldest son and daughter keep telling me). We wouldn’t want it any other way would we? You know when you drop your child off at the school gates for the very first time, when you are more nervous than they are and you wonder who is more upset? And as you walk away you shed tears of pride but also loss? It is great to learn to be strong and independent; but there is a huge difference between independence and rebellion, between independence and going off the rails and living a wild life – loose living. There is a huge difference between independence and interdependence. We cannot exist in a vacuum apart from each other. And we see that all the time so clearly in church and communities that thrive. At one extreme, independence forces us to descend into that vacuum of isolation and the risk and consequence is that we go so far down that road that we no longer recognise relationship – relationship with each other and relationship with God.

The story of the wayward or prodigal son which we heard today is a story about a son who went off the rails in a big way. I wonder sometimes if the story should be called the story of the forgiving dad because it also tells us about God’s great love for those who are distant, those who are far off, and the forgiveness, welcome and celebration they can experience when they come home. It is a time when the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak and the deaf hear – it is a time when people at last begin to recognise their very identity in God. It is a time when harvest time comes early!

I wonder this morning as we think about the story if we can see ourselves in any of the characters? Who might we identify with the closest? Who are the players in the scene? We have:

  • We begin by looking at the youngest son who lost his way and wanted to do things his way and nearly ended up losing everything.We can see the desire for independence and rebellion, the desire of the son to do things his own way. “‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’” And as we know he pursued a road to ruin and in a distant country “squandered his property in dissolute living.” When we are in rebellion against God we so easily squander the many blessings He has given us and we do that because we have taken our eyes off him. We must life up our eyes to the mountains though.   “I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121) When we do that there is only ever one outcome – it is ironic that in our pursuit of independence we often find that we end up in a place of need and dependence! And as we know the youngest son “began to be in need” and he lost sight of his dignity and working as a swineherd. Sometimes in life we have to have hard knocks – where we lose something of that vain pride and arrogance and come to a place of knowing and grace. St Augustine wrote “Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You, man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You “resist the proud,” — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”The youngest son did indeed come to that place of knowing and grace. In returning home he said to his father “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That is the truth. And likewise, there is nothing in us that can commend us to God.
  • And then we turn to the eldest son who at first glance appeared to be doing everything right – or was he?We can sometimes get so caught up in the task that we lose sight of why we are doing that task in the first place. For us at church, we must never ever lose sight of why we are here. We are here first and foremost to worship and be in relationship with God – that is the primary reason for existence. But a direct consequence of that is how we then are with each other and how we are with people in our community. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) The eldest son was so caught up with himself and his own narrow sense of pride, justice and righteousness that he had lost sight of the blessings he already had, the benefits of being his father’s son and the inheritance he was called into. All that his father had was his. All he had to do was ask. He could have had a celebration every night! His brother returned and received all the blessings a son could ever desire. The eldest son could have experienced the very same thing, but he really didn’t know all that his father would do for him. Sometimes we also miss all the blessings that are around us – the food on our tables, the clothes we wear, our family, and friends. God has blessed us with so much, and we don’t always recognise it. The eldest son became angry and refused to enter in to fellowship and it seems that for years he had fostered resentment in his heart – it was eating away at him. The elder son said “‘For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with loose living, you killed the fatted calf for him!’” It is very aggressive language isn’t it? I worked like a “slave for you”, “you have never given me even a young goat”, “this son of yours” – he has pushed himself so far out of fellowship and relationship that he loses sight of the love his father has for him, the many blessings that he was given and taken for granted, and he loses sight of his brother.If things don’t always go how we want or expect, do we respond like the elder son? Do we become angry and refuse to participate and take ourselves out of that place of blessing and out of fellowship? Yet we are told to “seek first his Kingdom AND his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) – we have to recognise that righteousness cannot come from us.We are not told how the eldest son subsequently responds…the question is left hanging in the air. It almost beckons us to ask ourselves how might we respond? It is a gentle challenge.
  • And we conclude with the father who was overjoyed to see his precious son return home.The father has the toughest of all the jobs. Who deserted the father – the youngest son or the eldest son? They both did! The father must have felt so hurt, so let down and disappointed. And yet the father is the one who is the seeker and responder, the one who is calm and in control, the one who is filled with grace, mercy, truth and righteousness. The father’s response to his eldest son was “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” You are always with me – nothing will ever stop me from loving you – all that is mine is yours – and see how the father’s heart is that his eldest son might capture such a vision of grace and mercy and forgiveness and love.And when we consider the gracious and compassionate response of the father to his youngest son, we are told “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” and then “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”And we know God is our heavenly father and shows us mercy that triumphs over judgement and rejoices whenever we come home to be back in fellowship and relationship with him.

I share these thoughts with you because today we celebrate Harvest time. What might the harvest have looked like for each of the players in our story?

For the youngest son and the father…the Bible tells us “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) The youngest son and the father both sowed with tears and journeyed through a breakdown of relationship to a place of restoration and reconciliation – a place of joy.

Harvest time is such a great time to express thanks for all the blessings we have – all good gifts around us – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our homes, our jobs, our families and friends. It is a good time to remember that whoever we connect with closest in that story, we are always welcome just as we are.

Always remember that God, like the father in our story, has the very best planned for us even if we have a tough journey to get there. Even if we feel far off and distant He will make the effort to come to right where we are and invite us home for the harvest celebration. Home is a place of forgiveness, a place of safety, a place of growth, a place of acceptance, a place where all the family should be able to come as they are, a place of celebration where all can gather. Let’s give thanks to God for the many blessings he has given us and ask that we might welcome people into our hearts and our spiritual home and pray that the harvest might come.

Amen

Fruit of the Spirit

Today in this concluding sermon in the series that began by us looking at the gifts of the Spirit we now look together at the Fruit of the Spirit. If you remember we are told in the Bible to earnestly seek the gifts of the Spirit and how they are given for the edification of the church and the salvation of others. We all have gifts and talents, we all have a role to play in being part of that Body of Christ that is the church.

I believe that whenever the gifts of the Spirit are in use we will always see the Fruit of the Spirit – it is cause and effect. The cause is the gift of the Spirit – the effect is the Fruit of the Spirit. Those who live in God’s light will produce fruit of moral and ethical character – “for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.” (Ephesians 5:9) I hope you will see today that the Fruit of the Spirit exceeds worldly experience or expectation – for example God’s love surpasses worldly love, God’s joy can be seen at times we would not necessarily expect it and so on.

So often, the fruit we may see in the sense of the world is not fruit that will last. God’s fruit, by comparison, endures and it is seminal – fruit begets fruit. There are also occasions when it takes some time for the fruit to become evident – for example the mission field. In ministry and mission we know that one plants, one waters – but God causes growth. It is easy for us to expect ‘overnight’ results, when in reality it may take time.

The Fruit of the Spirit then should form a foundation of our life in Jesus on which all things rest; when we see the Fruit of the Spirit we come close to having the mind of Christ. The Fruit of the Spirit in our lives affects everything we do and say, and the way we rationalize things; without it, everything is affected by sin. It has been said that for the shortest and most complete biography of Jesus, look at the Fruit of the Spirit. When people see the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives they should see Jesus. We should also remember that the Fruit does not come from efforts, simply by legalistically following the law but grows naturally out of trust, out of relationship, out of covenant and out of love. This is the essence of mission and captures the principle of practising what we preach. In Galatians 5: 23 we read that against the Fruit of the Spirit “there is no law”.

If we ever wanted a measure against which we could determine our ‘rightness’ with God and every aspect of relationship – whether with God or each other, then we should look to the Fruit of the Spirit. It is also worthwhile looking at what causes the opposite of each Fruit to be realised in our lives and bring that before the foot of the cross. Only when we identify barriers to each fruit and bring these before the Lord can we hope for the barriers to be overcome.

The Bible tells us about the Fruit of the Spirit in 5 books in the New Testament – Galatians 5, 2 Corinthians 6, Ephesians 4 & 5, Colossians 3 and of course 1 Corinthians 13. I think there are roughly 19 fruit listed and these are on the overhead. It certainly is an impressive list isn’t it? I don’t know about you but when I look at the Fruit of the Spirit I can’t help but think – desire even – that there is more of that in our lives. We should yearn to be clothed in the Fruit of the Spirit.

I thought it might be helpful to comment on a selection of some of the fruit.

Love

The kind of love we are talking about here is agape love – that unreserved, unconditional, generous and gracious love, that sincere affection and benevolence. It is a kind of love you cannot share or experience in isolation. It is the kind of love in which we go the extra mile with one another. It is the kind of love that allows us to love the unlovable – those who society puts down or has written off. It is the kind of love that we must show to one another as we knock rough edges off one another. It is the kind of love God has shown us and the kind of love we are called to show to God. It is the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13.

Joy

I think Biblically, joy has its roots in that sure and certain hope we have – that deep knowledge and security of our salvation and that we are God’s children. This kind of joy is a joy we can know even in and through adversity – and we see something of it in the Book of Job. We too may pray “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) We too may pray “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (Job 19:25). It can be linked closely with faith and we get a sense of that in 1 Peter…

Though not having known Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, [the] salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1: 8 – 9).

Peace

Philippians talks about a kind of peace that is elusive to many people…that peace that surpasses all understanding:

Stop being anxious about anything, but in every [thing] by prayer and by petition, with thanksgiving, be letting your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, the [peace] surpassing all understanding, will guard [or, protect] your hearts [fig., inner selves] and your thoughts in Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 4: 6- 7)

For people who struggle with adverse mental health including depression or anxiety, this kind of peace is particularly elusive. If you suffer from anxiety it isn’t easy to “stop being anxious about anything” because it isn’t as if you want to be anxious in the first place! But for me it highlights the importance of persistence in prayer.

Patience

We live in a consumer society where there is an expectation of “instant everything”. We tend to find it difficult because of that to be patient – patient with ourselves or patient with other people or perhaps the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I think it helps if we hold fast to the Lord’s Prayer to remind ourselves that we pray for God’s will to be done. That means God’s timing, and God’s way which isn’t necessarily when or how we might expect it. We must hold fast to the verse “The Lord’s patience means salvation” and pray that we too might be blessed with such patience.

The Lord is not slow concerning His promise, as some regard slowness, but He is waiting patiently towards us, not wanting any to be lost but [for] all to make room for repentance.”…“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (2 Peter 3: 9, 15a). See also Proverbs 14: 29, 15: 18, 19: 11, James 1: 19 – 20.

Kindness

There are several passages that speak about kindness:

It is “God’s kindness that is leading us to repentance.” (Romans 2: 4) “So we urged Titus to finish this work of kindness among you in the same way that he had started it. Indeed, the more your faith, speech, knowledge, enthusiasm, and love for us increase, the more we want you to be rich in this work of kindness.” (2 Corinthians 8: 6 – 9)

Do you see how the Fruit of the Spirit is seminal – it can itself go on to bear more fruit. So the kindness of God can lead us to repentance.

Goodness

In the Bible, the “goodness” of God often refers to His gracious generosity in providing abundantly for our needs and benefits (Psalm 23:6; 65:11). It can also refer to God’s generous mercy and patience that allow more time for sinners to repent (Romans 2:4).

But God’s goodness is much more than those things. It is the very essence of God’s nature – His righteousness and holiness. In Ephesians 5:9, we see that His goodness is closely associated with righteousness and truth.

To the extent that we have God’s goodness, we have godliness or God-likeness. We are made in God’s image AND likeness.

Faithfulness

Great Faith is a Gift of the Spirit. The context of faith in the Fruit of the Spirit is that of faithfulness…there is a sense of constancy, consistency, reliability and covenant. The Psalms, and indeed the whole of Scripture, contain numerous examples of God’s faithfulness to His people – it is that covenant love. With the Spirit indwelling in us, we too should reflect God’s faithfulness in our encounters.

Gentleness

You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.” (Psalm 18: 35) It is wonderful that the Lord’s gentleness can make us great. “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4: 1 – 3)

When you encounter people who are gentle, who almost shine with gentleness and humility – these are people who are “God touched” and God blessed.

Self-Control

The Bible tells us that “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” (Proverbs 25: 28) And we are called to do all that we can to nurture and encourage the gifts that we have for the Fruit to be in evidence. “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1: 6 – 7) In that self-control we see gracious restraint often seen in Godly speaking.

Purity

Holiness and purity often go hand in hand…the Bible tells us “He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.” (Proverbs 22: 11) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5: 8)

Understanding

The Fruit of Understanding is like having those lightbulb moments about the things of God. It tends to result in a deepening of our faith.

Truthful Speech

It is a challenge today that society’s view is that there is no such thing as absolute truth and that there are many “truths”. I struggle with that view because Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He didn’t say “a way, a truth and a life”. For me God’s truth is absolute truth…“Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” (Psalm 51: 6) “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” (Psalm 86: 11)

Reliance on the Power of God

2 verses perhaps capture this fruit:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1: 16)   “For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13: 4)

Humility

Philippians 2 gives us that model of humility shown by Christ.

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2: 3 – 4)

Tolerance

Tolerance is a sense of long suffering and great forbearance; it is also commitment to one another. It is being prepared to journey with one another warts and all! Tolerance is a hallmark of covenant – and we see God’s tolerance – his mercy that triumphs over judgement, and of course his grace – again and again and again.

Righteousness

There are three verses that capture righteousness:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5: 6) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 10) “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6: 33) With that last verse especially we tend to omit the “and his righteousness”.

Discerning what pleases the Lord

The primary reason for our existence is to worship God and be in relationship with him. Not surprising then that one of the Fruit is to discern what pleases the Lord. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11: 6) “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (2 Corinthians 5: 9)

Heart of compassion

We love because God first loved us. We show compassion because God shows us compassion – we are hard wired to be compassionate – it is an integral part of our humanity.

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” (Lamentations 3: 31 – 33)

Forgiveness

All of the fruit would be worthy of their own sermon – but there really is a HUGE amount that could be said about forgiveness.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”” (Matthew 18: 21 – 35) It is hugely important to forgive, to bear with one another, not to hold a grudge.

Conclusion

So there we have some insights into the Fruit of the Spirit. As I said earlier, I certainly want to see more of those in our lives. We must exercise discernment though because not all ‘fruitfulness’ is good; it is possible to bear bad fruit too. Fruit is something that comes from within and is expressed outwardly through our speech and actions. Someone who is evil will do evil deeds, and someone who is good will do good deeds. This is covered in Luke’s gospel:

For a good tree does not produce rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. For they do not gather figs from thorn plants, nor do they pick a grape cluster from a thorn bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces the good [thing], and the evil person out of the evil treasure of his heart produces the evil [thing]. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6: 43 – 45)

I have encountered people who have a bitter root in their heart or a critical spirit who quite simply can’t say anything good, positive, encouraging or affirming about anything or anybody; there is an absence of the Fruit in their life and it is heart-breaking. These are the kind of people who indulge in gossip or slander and yet the Bible is clear on this point…“If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to speak the truth in love but we are to “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the LORD forgave you.” It can be good to engage in a spiritual health check and reflect on conversations we might have had and ask ourselves “in what ways was the Fruit of Spirit in evidence?” If you have an issue with someone, or if you have engaged in gossip or slander then make your peace with God and make your peace with that person.

Jesus tells us that He has chosen us and appointed us: “to go and produce fruit that will last, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” (John 15: 16) We need to claim that truth today.

Let me invite you to close your eyes now as I read some verses from Colossians.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the LORD forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Gifts of the Spirit 2

We recently began looking at the gifts of the Spirit together, focussing specifically on those gifts given for practical service and gifts given for leadership and administration. If you remember we also spoke about some of the barriers that we face that hold us back from using the gifts and talents we have been blessed with for the glory of God.

This week, in this concluding sermon on the gifts of the Spirit we will be looking together at what some people refer to as the gifts of utterance, of which there are perhaps 10 listed in the Bible:

  1. Apostle

Our first gift of utterance is an apostle who is literally ‘one sent forth’ for a specific purpose; an envoy, or a missionary. Someone who is an ambassador of the Gospel. Apostles are frequently engaged in the proclamation of the gospel to an unbelieving world (Galatians 2:7 – 9)

The first apostles were the disciples of Jesus. But other people subsequently became apostles:

  • Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and is often referred to by the early church fathers as being the apostle to the apostles. You may remember in John’s Gospel how Jesus’ first resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene and she proclaimed the good news to the disciples before they too saw Jesus for themselves.
  • Someone else who we know as being an apostle was St Paul and if you consider his missionary journey’s and ministry in the early church we begin to get an idea of what an apostle is like.

In my own experience I knew someone who was gifted in this way. He was particularly good at church planting and building up churches – even if he was hopeless at sustaining the church once it had been established. But he recognised this and invested time and energy in building up a strong leadership team who could take the church forward.

  1. Word of wisdom

The second gift of utterance is a word of wisdom. People with this gift frequently express profound spiritual insights through the Spirit at a given moment, disclosing the mind, purpose, and way of God as applied to a specific situation. I would dare to say that I sometimes see this gift at work in the team here in this church. Do you perhaps know of people who have an incredible ability to get you to look at things in a different way and are perhaps able to encourage you to step out in faith?

   3.  Word of knowledge

The third gift of utterance is a word of knowledge. People with this gift are often given a revelation of knowledge from the Holy Spirit about something / someone, given for a specific purpose, usually having to do with an immediate need.

Have you encountered people who at times have insights about you, insights that bless you and lead you to life?

  1. Teaching

The fourth gift of utterance is teaching. People blessed with this gift have a great ability to expound and instruct people in established Christian doctrine so that people might be built up and equipped. It is worthwhile pointing out that being blessed with the gifts of the Spirit also carries with it responsibility. In James 3: 1 for example we are told… “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

In my walk of faith I have been blessed to meet a handful of people who are really gifted teachers and when they are exercising their ministry you simply feel engaged, excited, alert and in a place where you really listen. It is incredible to consider that perhaps the disciple Peter was blessed with this gift…if you want to see how then take a look at some point at the early chapters of Acts and see how when empowered by the Holy Spirit a simple fisherman who was rash and impulsive was used in an incredible way by God.

  1. Prophecy

The fifth gift of utterance is prophecy. This typically involves the proclamation of a message of edification, exhortation, consolation and / or rebuke. I know I have preached about prophecy at St Margaret’s before but I truly believe that the gift of prophecy is vital for the growth and direction of any church – no wonder we are told to “Keep on pursuing love, yet be seeking earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially the ability to prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14: 1) I know of at least one person who is connected to church here who I would consider to be blessed with this gift. I think is it really important to say that I believe that this gift is linked intrinsically with discernment.

   6.  Discernment

The sixth gift of utterance is discernment or literally “distinguishing between spirits.” I believe that this gift is complementary to prophecy, and distinguishing the genuine prophet from the false. It is certainly an important gift to have in times of false teaching or when the teaching in parts of the church veers off towards the heretical.

Discernment is also critical when engaging in intercession and spiritual warfare. If you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he talks about the armour of God and the spiritual struggle that we engage in, this is a gift that really helps.

  1. Speaking different kinds of languages 

The seventh gift of utterance is speaking in different kinds of tongues or languages. This sadly has tended to be a gift which has caused much controversy in the church and so bear with me if I spend a little bit of time explaining it:

  •  We see reference to this gift in several places in the New Testament. In Acts 10:44-46:

o   “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.”

  • Not ALL Christians speak in tongues
  • Speaking in tongues is not necessarily the ONLY sign of being filled with the Spirit
  • There are no first or second-class Christians. If you don’t speak in tongues you are not a lesser Christian!!!!
  • Speaking in tongues is not the most important gift
  • Speaking in tongues is a human or angelic language (1 Corinthians 13:1)
  • It is a form of prayer (1 Corinthians 14:2) for private or corporate use…but there are some caveats when it is used in corporate worship!
  • It builds up an individual and brings glory to God
  • It transcends language barrier (1 Corinthians 14:14)
  • The speaker is in full control
  • Tongues are a sign for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22)

   8.  Interpretation of languages

The eighth gift of utterance is the interpretation of tongues or languages. If you get time take a look at 1 Corinthians 14 which goes into some length about the interpretation of tongues and why it is important, especially in a context of corporate worship.

St Paul said “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)

  1. Evangelist

The ninth gift of utterance is an evangelist, which literally means “to announce good news (evangelize), especially the gospel” or to declare or bring and show good tidings and preach the gospel.

 Have you ever been in situations where someone you know simply can’t help but “gossip about God”? It is almost as if they are exploding with excitement about the things of God, the love of Christ and his good news.

I know some people who are blessed with this gift and it is a joy to minister alongside them. They are passionate, fearless yet deeply compassionate and loving individuals who see people as God sees them and desire with all of their heart that they might come to faith in Christ and be blessed and saved.

  10.  Pastor – teacher

The tenth or final gift of utterance is the pastor – teacher. I think this gift is exemplified by the illustration of a shepherd. Someone who looks after the flock, someone who guides and instructs the flock. I think Peter was blessed with this gift and in my mind Jesus’ instruction to him to “feed my sheep” captures the heart of it.

Every Christian has the Holy Spirit (we are “in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9)) but not every Christian is filled with the Spirit. In Ephesians we are told to “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18-20) and there is a sense that we need to continually be filled with the Spirit. Someone once said that the problem we have is that we leak! Jesus knew times of filling and times of being emptied. Jesus spent time in prayer with his heavenly Father to recharge his spiritual batteries. We need to do the same! Jesus invites us to drink deeply from the spring of the water of life that we might never thirst. (Revelation 22:17)

In all of this I hope you recognise that even if we are by very nature of our parentage and ancestry blessed with specific abilities at birth which come to fruition as we find ourselves in life, the gifts of the Spirit are if you like extra-ordinary gifts or talents given to the people of God to bring glory to him and to build up his church. It might be that God takes a talent we already possess and deeply blesses it – making the secular sacred – and in the power of the Holy Spirit making it bear much fruit OR it might be that in a given situation we are blessed with a gift of the Spirit for a specific time and purpose.

As I said last time, remember at all times that in Christ ALL of you have a calling, a value and a purpose. May you seek earnestly the gifts of the Spirit. May your prayer be “Come Holy Spirit, Come.”

Gifts of the Spirit 1

I do recognise when the Holy Spirit is the subject of sermons that some people in church may feel quite uncomfortable. In many churches, 2 of the 3 persons of the Trinity – God the Father and God the Son – tend to get much air time; but sadly the Holy Spirit is often neglected. I think there may be several reasons for that:

  • It can be hard for people to grapple and identify with the Holy Spirit;
  • When we use the word “charismatic” it conjures up so many different and unhelpful images. I am sure that you have heard the expression about charismatics “swinging from the chandeliers”, charismatics “waving their hands around in the air a lot” or charismatics “babbling with some kind of gobbledegook”.

In thinking specifically about the gifts of the Spirit, there are other reasons too why people may feel uncomfortable in making use of the God-given gifts they are blessed with. These can include:

  • Feeling inferior or inadequate
  • Not wanting to come across as being full of pride
  • A lack of confidence; feeling shy
  • Not being given an opportunity
  • Not being invited to share
  • Not knowing there is a need
  • A lack of understanding and training about the gifts of the Spirit and what it is to “be church”
  • Insufficient resources
  • Not knowing where our gifts and talents may best be used
  • Insecurity and fear of failure
  • Feeling intimidated by people around us who ‘seem’ more talented and more gifted than we are
  • Not realising that there opportunities to get involved and have a go
  • Lack of time due to other pressures
  • Bad experiences in the past

If we look at the parable of the sower in Mark 4: 1- 20, we can see how Satan can all too easily prevent a seed that has been sown from growing and yielding fruit. Our prayer should be that we will be as the ‘good soil’ so that when we ‘hear the word and receive it’, we will ‘keep yielding fruit – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.’ It is so easy to forget that we are all too human, and we make mistakes. It also takes effort on our part to be as the ‘good soil’.

What we don’t understand we tend to be fearful of. And I think that the standard and frequency of teaching in the church on this subject leaves a lot to be desired. I believe we are called to express our faith and our prayers in a Trinitarian way; we shouldn’t neglect the Holy Spirit! At the most simple and perhaps also the most profound level, we pray to God the Father through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it seems appropriate on Pentecost Sunday in which we commemorate the coming of the promised Holy Spirit to the church that we should begin this sermon series on the Gifts of the Spirit and the Fruit of the Spirit. We are also told in the Bible “Keep on pursuing love, yet be seeking earnestly the spiritual gifts, especially the ability to prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14: 1) It is astonishing to me that we spend so little time and effort in that seeking!!

My heartfelt desire – and one that fuels my prayers – is that you might be released to be all that you are created to be in Christ, and that you might know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in your lives – His anointing and his equipping. In sharing my heart with the leadership team and engaging in some process of discernment we believe that this is important and the right time for us as a church to explore this together. There is both a need and an opportunity for us together to be the body of Christ in all its fullness.

So over the course of the next few sermons, I will be taking you through a series on the Gifts of the Spirit and the Fruit of the Spirit. The first two sermons will focus on the Gifts of the Spirit, beginning with us looking at an introduction and gifts for practical service and in the second sermon moving on to look at gifts of utterance. In the third and final sermon in this series, we will explore together the Fruit of the Spirit.

Sermon

Models of the Church

The Bible tells us about what are often referred to as gifts and graces (charismata and charis). Although the root Greek word ‘charis’ is the same, the meaning of the two words is fundamentally different. Although both gifts and graces are freely given to us from God, grace is given for the salvation of those who have it; gifts are bestowed for the edification and building up of God’s church and salvation of others.

I think that when we begin to consider this material it is important to begin by spending some time outlining some thoughts about ecclesiology – what it is to be church. We all know that church is not the building in which we worship in – beautiful so that may be; church is always the people of God gathered. There are many models of the church in the Bible. The church is the “bride of Christ”, and the church is the body of Christ (Colossians 1:15)

I want to focus today on that latter model – the church as the body of Christ. I wonder how many of you feel like you are part of a greater body? There are implications and consequences of being part of one body, being part of the same body:

  • When one of us is hurting, we all feel it
  • We all, without exception, have a role to play
  • No one role is more important than any other
  • We need to work together to keep healthy; we need to be united and work to and for a common vision and purpose in Christ
  • Our very lifeblood and spiritual DNA has to be founded in self-sacrificial love

To use that illustration of the body, it is difficult when people are members of a church and may not realise what their giftings are. If that is the case we have failed; if we fellowship together, on Sunday morning, in House Groups and at church social events and church weekend aways, then as we get to know one another we begin to realise particular gifts and talents that individuals may have. I am sure if you consider people you know in church you can quite easily think how “’Fred’ is really good at this or ‘Edna’ is really good at that”, whoever Fred or Edna might be in our context.

With that in mind, it can be helpful when a church begins to look at the gifts of the Spirit together. My hope is that in providing some teaching on the gifts that it might encourage is to prayerfully consider what our own individual giftings are and how we might use them for the glory of God. And if you already have some understanding and insight into your giftings and you already use them hopefully it might refresh and encourage you in your ministry. We also have an opportunity to prayerfully reflect on what other people’s giftings may be who may well need encouragement.

We also need to consider what defines us as people? Do we allow ourselves to be defined by this broken world in which we live in? We are in the world but not of the world. What defines us is our Heavenly Father; we are children of God, we are esteemed by God, we are a royal priesthood, and we are ambassadors of Christ.

An introduction to the Gifts of the Spirit

So what are the Gifts of the Spirit? Well to begin with let us consider the following:

  1. There is no such thing as a ‘complete list’ of the Gifts of the Spirit in the Bible
  2. Everyone has a gift (1 Peter 4: 10)
  3. Specific gifts are reserved for individuals, i.e. not everyone will have the same gift (1 Corinthians 12: 30)
  4. Many people may have more than one gift (1 Corinthians 14: 26)
  5. Spiritual gifts are apportioned by God (1 Corinthians 12: 6 – 11, 28 – 29)
  6. We may keep on desiring more gifts (1 Corinthians 12: 31)
  7. We should ‘devote ourselves’ to using the gifts we are given (Romans 12: 7 – 8)
  8. People with gifts are themselves gifts from Christ (Ephesians 4: 7 – 13)
  9. The hallmarks of the Gifts of the Spirit include:
    1. Bringing glory to God rather than man – the man who had been born lame praised God not Peter (Acts 3: 9);
    2. Upbuilding or edifying individuals (1 Corinthians 14: 26);
    3. Upbuilding or edifying the church – the body of Christ (Ephesians 4: 12)
    4. An escalation into the Fruit of the Spirit – a consequence of the sanctifying work of the Spirit within us (Ephesians 5: 8 – 9)

“If you are led by God’s Spirit, you will say that Jesus is Lord, and you will never curse Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 12:3)

In very general terms, the Gifts of the Spirit can be split into three main categories:

  1. Gifts of utterance
  2. Gifts for practical service
  3. Gifts of administration

This week I want to focus on the last 2, namely gifts for practical service and gifts of administration – recognising that we don’t necessarily have ALL of the gifts ALL of the time – we may be blessed with a specific gift for a specific purpose – for a time and a season. Gifts for practical service can be split further into two categories:

  1. Gifts of power. These include:
    1. Great faith

I believe that as Christians we all have some measure of faith. However, I also believe that there are times when God might call a community or an individual into an even greater expression of faith which in itself is a result of a gift of the Spirit. Some years ago I had an encounter with a woman who was very damaged who described herself in our initial discussions as being a ‘child of the devil’. When she realised I was a Christian, she said with great vehemence and malice “I suppose you are going to share your testimony with me.” She was quite astonished by my reply. I said “why should I waste my time sharing my testimony with you? If I ever do share my testimony with you, it will be because I feel prompted to do so by God.” Our discussions continued and I was well aware of a real spiritual struggle going on. One day in the middle of winter I felt prompted to say something really odd which required me to step out in great faith because it was so unusual and totally unexpected – and certainly not what I would typically do! I believe God prompted me to say a simple and short sentence…“That you might believe, in seven days you will see a butterfly.” What an odd thing to say!

  1. Power to heal the sick

I have had the privilege of witnessing some miraculous healings but I want to be clear here about two specific things. Firstly, we should not limit sickness to physical sickness. Healing of the sick can include healing of people who suffer in mind, body or spirit – and that would include people struggling with mental health issues, people who are physically unwell or people who are suffering spiritually. If you think about the prayer ministry that takes place here, that is an opportunity for people with this kind of gift to make use of it. The second point is that we must never lose sight of the fact that ultimate healing is being with God.

  1. Power to work mighty miracles

In Western society, we don’t often witness “mighty miracles”. I don’t think that is because God isn’t capable; I think it is tied up with cultural inhibition. There are places in Africa where mighty miracles take place in the church frequently; consider the ministry of that great evangelist Rheinhard Bonnke with Christ for All Nations. If you get chance, look up the organisation and see what miracles are taking place daily.

  1. Gifts of sympathy. These include:
    1. Acts of helping / servanthood

Think for a moment about the many acts of helping and servanthood that take place here already. There are people who volunteer for the over 50’s lunch club, PATCH, the Homework Club, Family Café, Kingdom Kids, Refreshments, setting up the church for Messy Church and helping with it…the list goes on!

  1. Encouraging

A classic example of the gift of encouragement can be seen in Barnabas in the Bible. We learn of Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37 “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

  1. Contributing to the needs of others

When I first moved in to the Vicarage, a group of people from church were really kind in bringing meals round for me for the first few days. There was a need and it was responded to very generously and very graciously. I know of others in church who at one time or another have had real needs which have often been met by the generosity and love of others in the church.

  1. Works of mercy

I think showing mercy has at its heart a deep outworking of the grace of God. It is an outworking of Kingdom values like love, forgiveness, compassion – and can include loving people who are on the fringe of society or the church because either society or the individual has distanced them. People who have a gift of works of mercy love people to life – literally!

  1. Ministering

In a 21st century context this might include things like ministering to the bereaved, those in care homes, people of other faiths, ministering to the elderly, the widow, the orphan, people struggling with the challenges of life. It is a gift that those with a servant heart have. Those in the early church who had such a gift were called deacons of the church.

In addition to these there are also gifts of administration and leadership which include forms of oversight and organisation.

It is clear that in order to have these gifts you don’t need to have some formal position in the church, although you would hope that people who do have a formal position in the church have been recognised as having some of the gifts.

If you find that you see these gifts in your life or the life of others then do prayerfully consider sharing that – in the case of giftings you may have, share with me, the Church Wardens or any member of the team. And in the case of giftings you may recognise in someone else, why not have a word with them and encourage them?

Remember at all times that in Christ you have a calling, a value and a purpose and seek earnestly the gifts of the Spirit. May your prayer be “Come Holy Spirit, Come.”

Conditional Faith

What would you say is the time when our faith is perhaps challenged the most? Is it when we are going through very very hard and trying times, or is it when everything is going well?

There is much to be said in either case. It makes us question what faith actually is. We cannot go through life with a conditional faith, where either consciously or subconsciously we say to God “I will believe if…” We cannot go through life where our faith is like a barometer of our experiences, i.e. we are strong in the faith when things are going well, but begin to wobble at the first sign of difficulty.

But neither can we go through life where we think we only need faith in the bad times and we can set our faith to one side when everything is going as we would like it. We can be very fickle about these things…I know I have been at times.

God is present and with us through the good times and the bad times. We so need to practice an awareness of his presence. That can be hard in the times we are hard pressed on every side. As we approach the cross, I invite you to read 2 Corinthians 4:8-12. May we have the grace and wisdom to allow it to speak into our prayers and that is Jesus is revealed more fully to us, our faith may be constant and true.

Love, actually

ableshepherd:

They say that a picture paints a thousand words. But you know what? Even one word can set people free. Dare to be a dreamer for God’s Kingdom, and dare to release the poet inside.

Originally posted on Nick Baines's Blog:

This is the text of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 in the presence of actors Emma Thompson, Celia Imrie, Paul McGann, Sean Pertwee and musician Billy Ocean.

I’ve just been on holiday for a week of culture-free sitting in the sun and reading. It was brilliant. I packed a pile of novels, but in the end spent several days reading a history book called ‘Sleepwalkers’ – about the origins of the First World War.

Now, I can’t read this sort of stuff without being haunted in my imagination by the words of the World War One poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as they shaped horror with sounds of beauty. Someone once sang, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but in the trenches it seems that when the going got tough, the tough wrote poetry.

It…

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