His grace is sufficient

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One of the many things that encourages me is when I hear someone share their testimony – what God has been up to in their life.  However, I have known some people who almost put down or diminish their testimony, saying that for them they didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience, and their testimony isn’t very good.  I think we have to be careful because the conversion experience is not the be all and end all…the fact that God is ‘in’ and a ‘part of’ their life is!!!  Maybe it has never occurred to them that they just might have been in a better place to begin with and God didn’t need to do quite so much work in their lives!  That in itself is an act of grace.  Whereas for others, before coming to faith in Christ, their lives might have been in a complete and utter mess.  Whatever our starting point, salvation is always by grace.

Paul knew this all too well.  His testimony was that he was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man; there was nothing that could commend him to God.  He goes on to say that he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and from a place of unbelief.  The challenge then for we who have come to faith is that we are no longer in ignorance; neither do we act in unbelief.  No wonder Jesus said “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

When I read about how Paul was before he came to faith, I don’t know about you…but I can really associate with him.  He even describes himself as being “the worst of sinners.” Paul had blown it.  He had sinned in words (blasphemy), deeds (persecution of believers) and thoughts (insolent and aggressive – a man of violence).  He couldn’t have got it more wrong if he had tried.  And so here in our first reading he bares his heart…and he does that because he has had a personal encounter with Christ and stepped in to the fullness of his grace.  “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  That is something we are invited into.

I know few Christians who really ‘get’ grace.  I know that when I came to faith I struggled to understand grace too.  Each day in prayer I said “Lord, I don’t understand grace.  Please help me to understand.”  I prayed this prayer for weeks, and weeks, and weeks.  I prayed that prayer for so long; but I never gave up.  I was still surprised though when one day I heard that still small voice.  I believe God said to me “Do you really want to understand grace?”  My response was rash and impulsive…I dared to say “Of course I want to understand grace!”  After all, I had been praying that I might understand for weeks.  Even God’s response was grace-filled.  Once again I believe I heard him say “Mark, do you really want to understand grace.”  And this time…I sat up and took notice.  After some careful thought my response was more measured, more considered…I said “Yes Lord, I really do want to understand grace. Please show me.”  God presented me with a picture, and it was a picture that literally brought me to my knees; it was a picture of me as I really am – a sinner.  I wept to see the extent of my sinfulness; there was nothing that could commend me to God either.  Perhaps in my arrogance I had thought that surely there must be something in me that would give me a tick in the box!  God then said to me “This is how you are.”  Now if that had been the end of my experience, I would have been crushed.  We all have a testimony, and my testimony is one of being found by God, one of being awakened by grace.  God’s grace always overflows.  And in his grace, he then showed me another picture in which I was stood there as white as the snow, wearing a white robe.  He then said “This is how you are in my Son Jesus.”  My heart leapt for joy; God had found me, God had reached out to me and called me.

The point is, the lengths that God will go to in order to find us are beyond our greatest imaginings – they are extraordinary.  We are reminded of that in today’s gospel reading in which Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.   God always carefully seeks out the lost, and he does that until he finds us.  And in that finding there is such great joy.  Jesus said “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

I want you to know that no matter what experiences you may have had in life, no matter how unworthy you might feel, no matter how bruised your bones are…that God’s grace is sufficient.  May you know the Gospel truth, the good news – that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  And that is something I want to shout from the rooftops.  He came into the world to save people like me, and people like you even if there is nothing in us that can commend us to him.  May you know deep joy in your heart and spirit, and the fruit of that encounter with the grace of God that is faith and love.  But may you also know how heaven rejoiced when you came to faith and each time you come before God with a humble and penitent heart safe in the knowledge of his love and grace.  One of the many reasons why God’s shows his grace is that “Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”

Like Paul, we are presented with a choice.  A choice of how we might respond to God’s love and grace.  How do we respond to God’s gift of grace? Like Paul, do we “thank Christ Jesus our Lord”?  Like Paul, is our heart cry “To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever”?

As we gather round the Lord’s Table this morning, let’s come with humble, penitent, grateful and joyful hearts.  As we have received grace from God, let us give grace to others.  Amen

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A journey to reconciliation through forgiveness

Even though I did a lengthy placement with a chaplaincy team at a prison, I don’t really think I can imagine what it must be like to be in prison.  After all, even though it was intimidating to be under lock and key and to have my movement and freedom restricted, at the end of the day I could leave and go home.  An experience of prison is not like the impression we get from watching Porridge with Ronnie Barker, much as we might love that classic series; neither are the Prison Officers like Mr MacKay – at least not the ones I met!

It is one thing to be imprisoned for breaking the law.  It is something entirely different to be imprisoned when you have done nothing wrong.  But that is exactly what happened to Paul.  Our reading today is taken from Paul’s letter to Philemon which he wrote when he was imprisoned because of his commitment to Christ.  I wonder if Paul’s letter is the kind of letter you would expect someone to write when they are imprisoned?  And of course this was not the only letter that Paul wrote from prison.  He also wrote those other epistles – to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.  For Paul, his present hardship was an opportunity to serve Christ in a deeper way.

It is a little ironic that Paul (who was held captive), writes his letter to Philemon, to (try and secure the freedom) of Philemon’s slave called Onesimus.  Paul knew all too well what it was like to be held captive, and if you remember last time I shared with you I that said God notices the hurting and has compassion on the bound, the burdened and the broken.  Despite Paul’s personal situation, he modelled Christ by continuing to do what was right and holy, irrespective of life’s difficulties and uncertainties. He put aside bitterness and all those questions that are raised – all for Christ’s sake. Nothing that life could throw at him could bind him and separate him from the love of Christ…we must remember “if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed.”  (John 8:36) Paul kept the faith and stayed in the knowledge of the love of his Saviour and he was able to serve God in an incredible way by encouraging and challenging Philemon.  (cf. v. 5).  Paul then had been willing to give up his rights for Christ’s sake, and even that could be used to the honour and glory of God.

So what do we know about Philemon?  Philemon was a wealthy Gentile Christian in Colossae; we are told that the church met in his home and of course he was a slave owner. Paul refers to him as:

  • his dear friend (1b)
  • a fellow worker (1b)
  • a convert of his who owed Paul “his very self”

After the introduction, Paul begins by commending and encouraging Philemon because of:

a)    His love for all the saints

b)    His faith towards Jesus Christ

Paul essentially carries out a spiritual health check on Philemon – love and faith are present, and these in turn have borne fruit by refreshing the hearts of the saints.  Love is a hallmark of a genuine Christian faith, and it is heartening to know that in faith and when we show love to one another we to can be refreshed.  No wonder Paul always thanks God for Philemon in his prayers.  But the sense we get from what comes next is “All this you do; let me then spur you on to even greater things.”  The love that we have in Christ is the love that keeps on giving.  That’s how it should be for us too when we accept the gospel and allow God’s word to speak into our lives.

When we consider the friends we have, are they people who challenge and encourage us to be the best that we can be?  Do we challenge and encourage them to be the best that they can be too? What would we be commended for?

So was Philemon willing to do the same as Paul? Was he willing to give up his rights for Christ’s sake too? Would he be willing to free his slave Onesimus who had somehow wronged him (Philemon 18), and then made his way to Paul in prison (Philemon 9) where he became a Christian (Philemon 10) and a useful partner with Paul in the gospel (Philemon 11, 13).

Paul is saying to Philemon that Onesimus is not simply his brother on Sunday in church…but on Monday morning as well as in the home and the workshop.

Paul knew that under the law, Onesimus had to return to his master.  Paul not only implores Philemon to receive (Philemon 17), forgive (Philemon 18) and acknowledge Onesimus’ new status as a fellow believer (Philemon 16), but he also requests that Philemon would relinquish all claims on him so that he can continue serving with Paul (Philemon 13).  Paul does this without exerting any apostolic authority; Philemon is convicted by Paul’s argument alone and as far as we know Onesimus was indeed set free.  The Christian faith can break down all social, racial and economic barriers.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, make nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

How does this speak into our lives today?

  • Our journey of faith is a journey from slavery (to sin) to freedom (in Christ).  It always has been for God’s people.  There are always areas in our life into which we need to invite Christ as Lord.  It can be hard, but it is not a journey we make alone…we are accompanied by God who is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1) and we as the body of Christ, the people of God, journey together.
  • That journey is also a journey into reconciliation – Christ reconciles us to himself – through forgiveness:
    • 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
    • God always initiates, always takes the first step.  God always shows us the way.  “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)  This is echoed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.”  As Christians, we are called to a lifelong journey of practicing forgiveness, justice and reconciliation.  As God’s makes the first step, we are called to make the first step with others.
    • When we examine our lives in the light of the Gospel, as we receive the Gospel are we too prepared to forgive, acknowledge and relinquish or do we harbour grudges?  If you do harbour a grudge or hold unforgiveness in your heart, what steps are you prepared to make today to move towards reconciliation and forgiveness?  Are you prepared to let go and let God?
    • As we gather before the Lord’s Table today, reminded of the price Christ was prepared to pay that we might be reconciled to him, let us be reconciled to one another and those whom we know.  Let our remembering be shown in how we leave this place today.  As we share the peace, let us be reconciled – to God, to one another and to ourselves.  Every time you forgive and give someone to God, you plant a seed that may bear the fruit of the Spirit.
    • If the words I have shared today have really spoken to you and encouraged or challenged you, don’t forget that prayer ministry is available, either in the side chapel after you have received communion or a blessing or after the service with me or any of the wider team.
    • But now let’s ask ourselves…are we prepared to lay all that we have, all that we are at the foot of the cross and say in the silence of our hearts…“Lord Jesus Christ, all that I have, all that I am I give to you.  Help me to let go of the things that hold me back.  May your will be done and your kingdom come. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.”  Amen

Living in love

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A favourite singer / songwriter of mine has written well over 100 songs in a career spanning over 4 decades.  A few years ago in an interview he was asked why so many of his songs were about love, or featured the word ‘love’ in the title.  The singer replied “How could I not sing about love…it is the greatest inspiration we can ever know…nothing compares to it, nothing even comes close to it.”  I have to say I totally agree with him.

If you look at the NIV Bible, the word love can be found 445 times in 409 verses in the Old Testament, 318 times in 257 verses in the New Testament or 763 times in the entire Bible!  When a word is used so many times, I think it is reasonable to conclude that it is important and we should sit up and take notice.

But WHY do we love? 

The Bible tells us quite simply “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  We are also told that “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7b-8) Since we are created in God’s image and likeness, our capacity to love and be loved is an integral and an implicit aspect of our humanity; if we don’t love, we are in some way less than human. (Genesis 1:26) We are hard-wired to love.  The love that we are capable of giving and receiving has its source in God.

How do we know what love is? 

Love is a strong positive emotion of affection or pleasure.  Love may involve sacrifice and it often involves putting other people first.  Love is characterized by the desire to want good things for someone no matter the cost and as we shall see there are hallmarks of love.  “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)  If we profess a faith, a hope and a love, then that has to be backed up by our actions and truth.  Christ’s love for us was such that he was prepared to give the most precious things possible – his life.

A good friend of mine is a pastor from a local church whose passion and heart is for the local community.  The focus of his ministry involved coming alongside people who lived on a nearby housing estate.  Over time he began to be trusted by people and he became known as a person of integrity.  It is a real privilege when you make deep connections as he did in that place.  One day he encountered a family who were going through some real trials.  They were broken…broken physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.  And they also had a real need for the things that so many of us take for granted.  They needed food (they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from).  The pastor sent out a text message to his network of contacts asking for donations of food, asking people to drop the donations off at the church building.  He was delighted when box after box of food and supplies turned up and when he delivered these to the family it was as if all their Christmas’ had come at once.  At the end of the day, love is a word of action.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  (1 John 4:9-12)  No one can ever say God doesn’t understand or that God doesn’t act.  He knows all too well what it is like to be human.

What does responding to God’s love look like?

I said earlier that the Bible tells us “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  The love that we give and receive is a consequence of God’s love, and our being created in his image and likeness; it is a natural or instinctive response to God’s love.  An analogy perhaps is that a plant cannot help but be drawn towards the sunlight; plants always grow towards the sunlight.  In the same way, if we are as we are created to be, we cannot help being drawn towards God’s love and we are called to reflect, emulate and live his love.

When we consider what responding to God’s love might look like, we gain some insight from today’s readings.  With this in mind, turn with me if you will to our first reading which is taken from the book of Hebrews 13.1–8, 15–16.

The church is at her best when she shows God’s love to the world.  We should do everything in our power to live out that love and living out that love begins right here.  Jesus said “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)  In the passage from Hebrews, three aspects of love in action are brought to our attention:

Keep on loving each other as brothers.  This is echoed in 1 John “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.”  (1 John 3:11)  Because of what Christ has accomplished for us, because of God’s great love that has been lavished upon us, we are called children of God.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we must strive to keep on loving each other as siblings.  If we love God, we will love one another.

The focus of that love is inward looking – it relates to the body of Christ.  When we see divisions, or splits in the church it is utterly heart-breaking; it is like a divorce.  It isn’t always easy; we would be in denial if we thought otherwise.  We are all human beings in a broken world.  We all make mistakes.  But we must remember at all times “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8)  I will talk more about this later.

Do not forget to entertain strangers.  The second aspect of that love is outward looking – it relates to people outside of the body of Christ.  And love is never an empty word. It always bears fruit; it is always associated with an outpouring of compassionate deeds.  Love is a word of action.  If people coming here don’t experience something of love then we have failed.  It has to be seen in every aspect of our “being church” – and lived out by me and by you.

Recently at one of the churches I minister in, we were blessed to be able to host a musical production of Annie.   A number of local families were involved, and as the children were rehearsing in the main part of the church here, I spent time with the mums and dads of those children.  They were making costumes, designing posters and publicity material, sorting out make up.  One of the simplest things I did was to try and listen to these people, many of whom had never set foot in the church building, and to make them welcome.  And one of the simplest but most powerful ways of making them feel welcome was to make them a cup of tea.  Henri Nouwen described listening as a form of spiritual hospitality.  We can also show hospitality by making people a cup of tea.

I am sharing that, not in any way to “blow my own trumpet” – it isn’t about me, it never is; but because I want you to know how powerful listening is and how powerful something as simple as making a cup of tea can be.  There have been many times I am sure when you have listened to one another and to folks outside and subsequently lifted them up to God in prayer.  And every Sunday we are blessed with refreshments at the end of the service.

One of the families volunteered to do catering for the event and it was lovely to see a whole family working together to provide drinks, hot dogs, buns, and biscuits to the people that came.  When people are loved and valued and appreciated they are released to love, value and appreciate others.  When we are secure in the knowledge of the love of God, we too are released to love, value and appreciate others.

The third aspect of that love is also outward looking.  “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated.”    We begin to be reminded of Jesus’ words “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”  (Matthew 25:35-36)  If we do all of the above, we show love.

The writer of Hebrews includes those who are ill-treated along with those in prison.  I would like to suggest that people can be imprisoned in many ways – through illness –physical, mental or spiritual, and infirmity.  So if we perhaps struggle with prison ministry, we have an opportunity to get involved in social justice issues through other ways – by looking to organisations like Amnesty International or Open Doors or even campaigning with our local or national government.  We can also get involved in pastoral visiting, volunteering with mental health support, bereavement support groups or other volunteer organisations.  It is all a response to the love that we have been given.

What goes wrong?

So what is it that stops us from being loving and loving others?  I think a root cause is pride or a lack of humility.  Our focus becomes shifted or distorted; we take our eyes off God.  When we take our eyes off God, we fail to remember or acknowledge his love.  The guests at the dinner in our Gospel account today shows that…they picked the place of honour at the table.  And Jesus reminds us that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Something else that causes us to take our eyes off God is fear.  So often in life we find that those who struggle to receive love, struggle to show love as well.  It is as if they have placed themselves behind a wall or a barrier and nothing can get out or in.  Many things may tip people into a place in which they find themselves bound and incapable of loving or being loved; failed relationships, shame, low self-esteem, or abuse.  People begin to live in fear – the sentiment is “I’m scared to love and lose again.”  But the Bible tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)  God’s love is perfect; God’s love will not let us down.  It is constant, enduring.

What’s the solution?

We are human, and we live in a broken world.  We all make mistakes.  Godly humility can be shown when we have the guts and the courage to admit when we are wrong, and when we ask for forgiveness.  I think Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents.  Let’s remind ourselves:

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Let us say in the quietness of our heart…“Lord God, I want to know your love more fully in my heart.  Your love conquers all, your love sets us free.  When we stumble and fall, when we are fearful may we be restored by your love that casts out all fear.”  Amen