Sometimes we upset people

Stephen was one of the seven, appointed as a Deacon in the early Church.  We are told that he was full of the Spirit and wisdom and in addition described as being full of faith.  In this passage he is described further as being “full of grace and power.”  So, there are 5 aspects of Stephen’s life and ministry: the Holy Spirit, wisdom, faith, grace, and power.  The source of his power was his relationship with God and the faith that he practised and professed.

Have you ever noticed that God’s power, manifest through truth is almost always accompanied by grace?  We see this in Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

I think it is very easy for us to lose sight of that; we may become fervently convinced about the truth, but speak it (at least as we see it) in an absence of grace.  When you have been convinced that you are speaking the truth, has it always been accompanied by grace? Think about times when you have spoken the truth as you see it but in an ungracious way.  If you have, then there is a clear need and call for repentance.

Grace is transformative.  It is the redemptive love of God reaching out to the lost and bringing them to conversion. It is manifest when we show love to those we struggle to love, when we seek to journey with people we disagree with or have little in common with.  We have all fallen short, but God gives us grace and power to accomplish His will.  And when we think about a hallmark of God’s truth we should remember that God’s truth sets us free.

When advocates of error are defeated in discussion and don’t get their own way, they often resort to slander, or to violence. They tried both against Stephen.  In the face of malicious persecution and back biting, it would have been very easy for Stephen to respond in an ungracious way that would have been unedifying to the Church and to God.  Stephen responded to persecution by forgiving his enemies.

If we enter in to a discussion with people, we should not try to ungraciously beat them into submission with words that undermine or ridicule.  We should seek to exercise grace and truth and bring out transformation and freedom.

All Stephen wanted to do was bring glory to God and invite people into a relationship with his Lord, Saviour and Redeemer.  He wanted to help people. He was living in obedience to Jesus and was sharing the good news of God’s forgiveness with everyone he could. Unfortunately, he was falsely accused, just like Jesus was.  Unfortunately, he upset the people he was seeking to serve.  It wasn’t because he said things in a deliberately provocative way, it wasn’t because he said the wrong things, or that he was ungraciously trying to undermine people; it was more because the receivers of his message felt threatened by what he shared.  Their response, rather than listening and seeking to understand his heart, was to make false accusations against him.

Have you ever been falsely accused of something? How did that make you feel? People generally feel indignant when they are accused of something they did not do. It is a difficult thing to deal with when you are misunderstood and misjudged

How should we deal with false accusations? How we deal with faults in other people and face our own faults reveals our character and whether we have the mind of Christ.  Different situations may call for different reactions, but I believe we can find some principles to guide us as we look more closely at the verses we read. We should seek to:

  1. Maintain our integrity;
  2. Be faithful to keep on doing what we genuinely believe God has called us to do;
  3. Be discerning; is the accusation from someone who clearly has issues and does not speak in grace and truth? The people who Stephen brought his message to “stirred up the people” against him, and engaged in back biting and false and malicious allegations.  The way in which people make accusations or handles a disagreement is in itself a clear indicator of where they are in their faith and in their heart.  We know that “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them”;
  4. Rebase ourselves by always coming to the foot of the cross and to be refilled with the Holy Spirit;
  5. Keep our eyes focussed on God
  6. Be willing at all times to forgive those who wrong us

Maybe we’ve had trouble forgiving someone for something they’ve done to us in the past. Maybe it is still going on, so we really don’t feel like forgiving them. But let me share something with you which I have learned in life and ministry; our lack of forgiveness probably doesn’t affect them all that much, but it will destroy us. If we continue to allow bitterness to have a hold in our life, it will ruin our life. Bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at our spirit until there is nothing left but the shell of who we were.  That is precisely why we are invited to be in unity and to make our peace with one another in a way that brings glory to God.  Again, grace and truth at work.

Even though Stephen was full of wisdom and the power of the Spirit, it did not keep opposition or false accusations away. What his tremendous faith and conviction achieved helped him to remain constant and true to focus on what the Lord wanted him to do.

We will face times when people hurt us, misunderstand us, mistreat us, falsely accuse us, and so on. How should we live in response? Live with integrity. Be faithful to keep on doing what God has called you to do. Ask God to give you wisdom and to fill you with His Holy Spirit. Entrust your future with the One who holds tomorrow, because nobody can lay a hand on you without God knowing. And finally, forgive those who hurt you.

Maybe God is talking to you about one or more of these areas. If you are feeling like you need His help with something we’ve talked about, would you ask God to help you? Be honest with Him and let Him know how you feel, but submit yourself to Him, and tell Him you want to do things His way. Ask the Lord what He wants you to do about the area He is talking to you about. Ask the Lord to bless you with His grace and power.  Then, step out in faith and do it. Obey the Lord.


Do not lose heart

Have you ever felt like giving up?  You know those times when everything just becomes too much?  Sometimes, and especially when we are under great pressure or stress, in times of great challenge and adversity, we may feel like giving up, especially when the source of that adversity is from people we might least expect.

St Paul had invested a huge amount of time in building up the church in Corinth; he remained with them for over a year and a half, had been in dialogue with them for around three years; he had invested of himself, exercising apostolic oversight, pastoral care, leadership and nurture.  And now in our reading today we learn how he finds himself in bitter conflict with those who had become his opponents in Corinth.

People who Paul had cared for and loved accused Paul of giving up on them and losing heart, despite his visits and his letters and all his efforts.  I don’t know about you, but if I had been Paul I would have been so tempted to have said in a huff “Fine then, you’re on your own!”  I would probably have given up.

But sometimes, sometimes we can’t walk away.  Sometimes we shouldn’t walk away, and I say that as one who does not like using words like shouldn’t, or ought not!  We always need to step back and remember why we do what we do, why we are what we are and actually who we really are.  You see, we don’t exercise ministry or try in our brokenness to live out our Christian faith for ourselves.  It is not about us; it never is.  We exercise ministry, albeit with faltering steps, in the hope that somehow in God’s grace He might be glorified, and when we stumble and fall, that yes, in his grace He might even be glorified by that too!

Paul remembers that it is by God’s mercy and God’s mercy alone that he exercises the ministry he is called to.  If you are confident in your calling and faith in God’s mercy, no matter how the world might buffet you with storms, you may be able not to lose heart.  Have you ever met someone who has lost heart?  Have you ever lost heart yourself?  Try and remember what you might have said to them and perhaps what people said to you if you have found yourself in that place.  Have courage, do not lose heart, God is with you and will not leave you.

And then Paul sets out some of the areas which the church in Corinth was in error and had drifted away doctrinally.  They became arrogant and proud and began to align themselves with false teachers and false prophets, and they called into question with Paul the very things that they themselves were guilty of.  They projected their own issues onto Paul rather than acknowledging or accepting that those issues were their own:

  1. a) They engaged in secret and shameful ways
  2. b) They used deception
  3. c) They distorted the word of God

Furthermore, some members of the Corinthian church that Paul was dealing with had, like Paul, come from a Judaic background – but unlike Paul they had not had a Damascus road experience.  They had not had that revelation of or encounter with Christ and I want to be clear here that Paul did not simply have a vision – his writing makes it clear that he was a direct witness to Christ – he had gazed into the face of Christ himself.  We too need to gaze into the face of Christ and embrace that light and glory of God.

Paul wanted the Corinthians to hold fast to Gospel truth…and to declare it plainly.  Paul wanted them to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  If you want to see God, look at Christ.  No wonder God the Father said to his son “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”  Paul wanted them to have that light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.  In what we say as preachers and pastors, are we faithful to Gospel truth, hard sometimes as that truth might be to hear?  We are to exercise a ministry of righteousness that comes from God, a ministry of reconciliation, and a ministry in the Spirit. If we commend ourselves that commending should point to God and God alone, and not to us.  Paul has a spirit of openness, transparency and honesty.  He declares that he is their slave for Jesus’ sake. Paul’s apostolic work required that he should share in his Lord’s humiliation in the confidence that he will also share in his triumphant life.

Christ’s messengers are consigned to a life of humiliation and risk but knowing that whatever may be thrown at them they are not alone and Christ is with them. Christ is with you.  And this is in order to leave the unmistakable impression that the power of the message we proclaim does not derive from the ingenuity and skill of the pleaders but comes solely from the inherent truth of the message as God’s word.  There is nothing in myself that commends you to this; but may you know the grace and mercy of the Lord in my life that you might believe.

So do not lose heart.  It isn’t simply about some far off distant hope; it is the reality of Christ being with us right here and right now.  Our troubles, heavy as they may seem, are light and momentary.  They will pass.  Sometimes the fear and anxiety we feel outweighs the worst possible outcome we might face.  I have had the privilege of walking with people in their faith as they have approached death and for many I have been humbled by the joy and the expectancy that they have shown – they were ready to meet their maker and that veil between heaven and earth was so very thin.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

And now for a moment, I would like to invite you all to close your eyes and imagine if you will that we stand together and journey slowly to the foot of the cross of Christ.  You can feel the ground beneath your feet, and you can feel the wind on your face.  Eventually we reach the cross and there we kneel.  We can reach down and run our hands through the earth which holds the cross.  And slowly we lift our eyes up to the cross, and there is a momentary shock because our Lord is not there.  But we are aware of his presence and suddenly we see him there beside us.  He stops by each one of us in turn, places his hand on our shoulder, and we feel compelled to gaze into his face.  As we gaze into his face, he speaks something to each of us.  They are his words for you…his truth.  A truth to hold, a truth to carry with you.  Finally he has stopped with each person and then as we all gaze at him he says “Do not lose heart.  I will be with you to the end of the age.”  So come Lord Jesus…come into our lives, come into our hearts, and may we shine with your light.

As you have come before the face of Christ, gazed into the face of Christ and heard the words of Christ, hold on to whatever those words were that were said to you and for you.  And remember that we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  Amen

The Canaanite Woman

When Jesus first sent out his disciples, he told them “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6).  We can clearly see from that instruction given by him at the beginning of his ministry, that his initial focus was on the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the people of God.  The reason why the Israelites were the initial focus of Jesus’ ministry was because it was always part of God’s plan that they would be a light to the nations.  We see that in Isaiah: “I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved.” (Isaiah 49:6)  Jesus wanted the Israelites to present the message of salvation to the rest of the world.

Today’s Gospel reading comes later and is one of several that serve as a stepping stone in the way in which Jesus’ ministry subsequently develops.  It points to the outreach of the Gospel beyond Judaism; God’s people had had an opportunity to hear the Good News.  Now it was the turn of the Gentiles – the other nations.  The reading provides us with a glimpse of the Gentile mission which would soon prove so widespread and so successful – a mission which ultimately would be summarised by “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the reading, Jesus and his disciples were miles away from Jewish land – in Tyre and Sidon – a Gentile area.  It would have been unlikely that Jesus would even have been heard of in this area, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why he went.  Jesus had to step down into darkness, to bring about transformation and show the disciples the way.

It is here that a Canaanite woman approaches him and begins to cry out.  To do this she had to overcome three barriers that would have very much placed her on the fringe or even beyond the society in which Jesus lived.  These barriers were:

  1. She was a Gentile, someone who coming into contact with would make an Israelite unclean or defiled;
  2. She was a Canaanite, a people who historically had led God’s people astray, who in addition the Israelites had been told to wipe out!;
  3. She was a woman.

The woman in our reading demonstrated courage, self-sacrificial love and a willingness to push through barriers which were not of her choice or making.  Her motivation was simple – that of the deep love a mother has for a child, and a heartfelt desire of a mother yearning to see her daughter healed – in this case, her daughter who was “tormented by a demon.”  There are few other motivations that can be more powerful than the love a parent knows for a child.  I think that the woman also recognised deep down that the barriers she faced were quite simply wrong.  We can sometimes find ourselves held back in life and even oppressed by inappropriate barriers caused by prejudice, misunderstanding and discrimination.  We too need to have the courage to break through those barriers to be all that we are created to be.

The woman overcame these barriers in four astonishing ways – probably without even consciously thinking of how:

  1. She went ‘against the grain’ in approaching Jesus
  2. She acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah
  3. She acknowledged Jesus as her King and Master by calling him Lord
  4. She poured out her heart and threw herself upon Jesus’ mercy

It is important to recognise that the Canaanite woman did something quite unusual in pushing through those barriers.  Her words suggest that despite being a Gentile, she had some familiarity with Judaism – her opening words are typically Jewish “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  We know that the title “Son of David” was a Jewish title reserved for the one who was the Messiah, and three times she calls Jesus “Lord”.  We are not told how she had become familiar with Judaism.

Her act was driven by profound need and that incredibly powerful love a parent has for a child.  The woman was filled with deep concern – she was trying hard to capture Jesus’ attention by crying out for mercy with sincerity.  She refused to give up.

I am not sure how I would have reacted if someone I had never met before came up to me and said “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  I am not sure how I would have responded at that time and in that context, with an encounter with a Gentile, a Canaanite at that and a woman.

Jesus responded in three very different challenging ways.  Perhaps surprisingly Jesus, we are told, at first simply gave no answer. “Jesus did not answer a word.”  I want you to imagine for a moment how you would feel if you were that woman, and you had cried out in desperation and got no response.  I want you to think about times you have prayed when you have not sensed a response.  I wonder if you have ever encountered someone who was distressed and desperate and in confronting you, at first you remain silent?  Don’t you find that people can say a lot by simply not replying?  What was Jesus trying to achieve by his lack of a reply?  I wonder who it was that had to come to faith – the woman, or Jesus’ disciples?  Jesus broke through the Jew/Gentile wall of division. Jesus dealt with Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering the “caste” system of His day—and shocking His Jewish brothers.  What Jesus was about to do would be an anathema to his disciples…they had to be in a place where they could accept what he was about to do.

And yet this absence of a response did not dissuade the woman.  She persisted and kept crying out after him – she was impassioned by the circumstances of her daughter.  Her faith was unwavering and constant.

In speaking to his disciples and also perhaps to the woman, Jesus then makes clear the initial focus of his mission and purpose “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  Was this statement a half question rather than a statement of closure, along the lines of ‘Was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel?’  His statement invites further dialogue rather than closes it.

How the woman responds to this rebuff is nothing short of remarkable.  She began to worship Jesus as she came before him and knelt before him saying “Lord, help me!”  She was without any doubt, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah.  She presented herself to him humbled with an empty hand of need, from a position of selflessness and integrity.

Jesus’ third response was to say “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” which reflected the Jews’ universal assumption that the Kingdom of God was their exclusive right and preserve only, although some also expected that the overflow of God’s bounty would be made available to ‘righteous’ gentiles who kept the law.

Her response – “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” – reminds me of the Prayer of Humble Access from our communion services:

We do not presume

to come to this your table, merciful Lord,

trusting in our own righteousness,

but in your manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy

so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.

But you are the same Lord

whose nature is always to have mercy.

Grant us therefore, gracious Lord,

so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ

and to drink his blood,

that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body

and our souls washed through his most precious blood,

and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.


It seems that the woman was aware of this overflow and wanted to claim that truth for her daughter’s sake, and also the word ‘dogs’ literally means ‘puppies’ so we must ask ourselves is Jesus’ response really half-affectionate?  Jesus is then moved with compassion by the constancy and persistence of the woman’s faith ““Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

I may not be a Gentile, a Canaanite or a woman of that time – but I know I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, grace and redemption.  This encounter tells us something about the nature of intercessory prayer and the persistence which we too may show as we come before the Lord burdened and aching for him to act.  We do that coming just as we are, mindful that all have fallen short of the glory of God.  We must ask ourselves, are our desires for an outcome in prayer sincere, impassioned, and filled with selflessness and integrity? Or do we come before God with a completely different agenda?

This encounter also serves to remind us that we too are to be willing to have encounters in places outside of our comfort zone, as we seek to be Jesus’ hands and feet in serving our community.  Like the Israelites, we too are to be a light to the nations; in our communities, and our places of work.

We KNOW Jesus is the Messiah, we KNOW he is the Lord; we know what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  So let us come before the Lord just as that woman did; with hope and expectancy, with persistence and faith and with all that we are.  Let us pour out our heart in silent prayer and throw ourselves on his mercy.

Let us take a few moments in silence to offer up our own prayers to the Lord now.  Come just as you are, and share with him what is on your heart. Amen.

Parable of the sower

One of the most well-known stories that Jesus shared is the parable of the sower.  I am sure some of us will have heard it many times before; but maybe this morning it’s your first time at Church ever, or even for a long time.  Maybe for you it’s the first time you’ve heard this story. Whatever the case, it’s great to see you here today for this special service of baptism, and I hope that these words I share with you give you food for thought.

We often find in life that when people – perhaps friends or family – share some advice with us – some words of wisdom – we have a choice.  We can either accept that advice and take on board those words of wisdom, or we can decide to reject that advice and do our own thing.  I know when I was a teenager, at times I was quite headstrong and rebellious and I often wanted to do my own thing – even if at times I had to learn the hard way by the consequences of my actions, particularly where my choices didn’t turn out so well.

The Bible tells us that God’s word – what we read in the Bible – is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.  It can help us to make good choices in life and shed some light on where we find ourselves in life and faith.  I think for me, reading the Bible can sometimes be like holding up a mirror to ourselves, giving us an opportunity to see things clearly.  It can bring hope and healing, comfort and challenge.  And in the middle of that, God always presents us with an invitation and a choice – to accept Him or reject Him. Jesus comes alongside us and always extends an invitation, an invitation to come to know him, to walk with him and to be his friend.  Earlier in the service, I said “we all wander far from God and lose our way; Christ comes to us and welcomes us home.  In baptism, we respond to his call.” And in this reading today, we see different ways in which people might choose to respond to that call.

  1. Jesus begins by saying “Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ call and the new life and blessings that he offers but either don’t understand or choose not to understand.  That lack of response gives no opportunity for the seed – that invitation – to bear any fruit.
  2. He then says “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.” This illustrates people who hear Jesus’ invitation and at first say all the right things, but don’t follow through.  I did that with my parents when I was a teenager.  I said, ok, I’ve learned – I won’t do it again.  But then a few weeks later, I was back just where I started.  The seed falls on rocky ground without much soil, and when the busy-ness of life and other distractions kick in, the seed withers away.  It is the easiest thing in the world to find excuses not to respond to Jesus’ invitation. At the end of the day, you can’t have a friendship by not investing yourself in that in friendship.
  3. In Jesus third example, he says “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” This is an illustration of people who are quite simply battered by the brokenness of this world and life events, perhaps won over by the false promises that the world can often present to us, or distracted by the lure of wealth. The seed – Jesus’ invitation – falls among thorns, and circumstances of life prevent that seed from ever bearing fruit.

To give you an example, some time ago I had a long conversation with a man who very openly spoke about challenges and issues he had in life associated with substance abuse and addictions.  He clearly had talents, but he found himself in a place where he was surrounded by “thorns” of life and he was struggling to get free.  I spoke to him about various organisations that could help, and I spoke to him about how I would be prepared to support him pastorally, practically and spiritually.  I extended a hand of friendship and give him that invitation.

If you think about recovery programmes for addictions, and especially those that follow the 12-step programme developed by the AA, the very first step is for people to admit that they are powerless over the substance they are addicted to and that their lives had become unmanageable.  The second step is for people to come to believe that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity.  The third step is where people make a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.  The tragic thing was that this man was unable to embrace these initial steps and reach out.  The thorns of life choked the seeds, and he couldn’t accept that invitation.

  1. In Jesus’ final illustration, he says “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” This speaks thankfully of those times when the seed that we might scatter falls on good soil and bears fruit in an incredible way – a hundredfold, some sixty, or some thirty.

I believe wholeheartedly that we are hard wired to bear fruit in life.  It is tragic when we see people who have such potential and yet are unable to live that potential.  The most precious thing we can give to each other is ourself; God did precisely that in sending his son Jesus.  I believe that God’s truth is something that can set us free, it is something that can cut away the thorns of life, it is something that can strip out the rocks from the rocky ground of our life.  It may well take time, but God promises to be with us, we heard some of those promises in the words of this service today.  And it comes back down to a choice.  Do we accept or reject his invitation?  How do we respond to his call?

In coming along to this baptism, inevitably we find ourselves encountering that invitation and making a choice.  We find ourselves hearing about God’s promises, and how he yearns to know us, and for us to be his friend.

Where do you find yourself this morning?  It is a question that God asked in the very beginning of creation…where are you?  Are you like the path, the rocky ground, surrounded and choked by thorns or are you open to hearing God’s call and accepting his invitation?

What does love look like?

Deep down I think that all of us feel a need to belong.  When we are at school and through adolescence we can experience incredible pressure from our peers – whether it is about the latest fashions, clothes, mobile phones, games and accessories, or makeup.  In some respects that pressure continues into adulthood – have you heard that expression ‘keeping up with the Jones’?

Many years ago now, when I was planning on moving across the Pennines with work I went to check out some houses that were for sale in different areas around Warrington.  One house was located on a leafy estate and as I pulled up outside, I noticed that almost every house on the estate looked practically the same and every house had a BMW in the drive.  It was a little disconcerting; but what was most disconcerting was how at practically the same time several of the owners of these houses came out and started to wash their cars.  It felt like we were in a clone village.  It seemed a little like keeping up with the Jones’ taken to an extreme.

Another illustration would be to consider how we are defined by where we were born.  Sometimes people might ask us where we come from.  With years of being away, it has been fascinating for me to see how people responded when I said I was from Yorkshire.  Even though the period of the War of the Roses dates back to the 15th century, for some people there is still an odd tension with those ‘from across the Pennines’ – and it wasn’t until I moved to the North West that I heard how some people consider Yorkshire folk to be tight.  On the other hand, I would say that some of the most generous hearted, loving and giving people I have ever known are from Yorkshire.

Thinking about these illustrations, it seems to me that it all comes down to what defines and shapes us, and our identity, and what we feel a need to conform to.  There are some things that we could well do without – such as living in a clone village, or the tremendous peer pressure we can all experience.  We are not called to be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings.  We can sometimes pay too great a price to ‘belong’.  I think Paul speaks into this in our passage from Romans which sets out for us the basis for Christian living, the marks of a true Christian and what should be central in what defines us – LOVE.

Sometimes people pay such a price to belong, to conform, that they lose sight of their very identity and personhood, and they lose sight of God.  No wonder Paul urges us, because of God’s mercy, to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.  And in that there is a double bonus.  God delights in us making that sacrifice AND in being all that we are created to be, and we realise our true worth – which is not defined by this world in which we live in.  Instead it is defined by God’s love.

We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  Christ himself is both the pattern and source of this renewal and transformation, Christ who can help us to see the world through his Father’s eyes.  One author wrote “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.”   You see, it isn’t until we are able to see the world through the Father’s eyes that we are able to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Today’s passage (Romans 12:9-21) is a tough passage, a big “ask” and at first reading it is easy for us to feel inadequate.  But these challenges should be what we genuinely aspire to.  It raises the question…when the rubber hits the road, what should love look like?  How do we live out our faith and work out our salvation?

  • Love must be genuine and sincere. One translation says “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” How do we know if love is genuine?  How do you know I love you?  How do you know God loves you?  We know if someone really loves us by the “being” and the “doing” – the things they say, the things they do and in that there is consistency and constancy.  Genuine love is self-sacrificial.
  • We must outdo one another in showing honour. What does honour look like?  It seems to me that we don’t hear much about honour any more.  It features in the marriage service though…the groom is asked “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”  The Bible tell us we are to honour our parents, honour those in authority, honour our Church leaders, honour one another and of course honour God.  There is a difference between honour and respect.  In a worldly sense, honour is often given on the basis of position, status, or wealth, but it can also be granted on the basis of character.  For me to honour someone goes beyond that…it is to acknowledge that they are created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of dignity and value.  We give weight to someone’s presence and existence.
  • We are to be patient in suffering. Put your hand up if you are gifted at being patient in suffering.  I am anything but patient in suffering, as those who know me well recognise.  And I think that in those times we begin to lose patience, we need friends who come alongside us and remind us that we are not alone and God is with us.
  • We are to bless those who persecute us; and not curse them. The response from the child in me to this is “It’s not fair.  Why should I bless those who persecute me?”  If you have ever fallen out with someone, did you feel like blessing them at the time?  I think in the brokenness of this world, we often want revenge or payback.  We see it all the time, and often when people want to impose their sense of justice and be satisfied – like a tit for tat.  The question is, if we are mean to someone as I am sure at times we will have been, would we like to be blessed or cursed?  If we cannot practice grace and mercy, how can we possibly expect to receive grace and mercy?  If we are truly honest with ourselves, would we like to be judged by our own standards?
  • This is emphasised still further when we are told “We are not to repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And “We are never to avenge ourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  And finally, “We must not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  It seems clear that the reason why so much emphasis is placed upon this, is because it is really important.  How many times are we called to forgive?  We must not bear grudges.  We have to let go.  That might mean that every single day we give the person who has wronged us to God.  It is costly. But in it is freedom. I say again “We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”  Our imperative must be to overcome evil with good, and that is precisely what Christ did.
  • Last of all, we are not to be haughty, but associate with the lowly. We are not to claim to be wiser than we are. For me that means we must acknowledge our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another.  In acknowledging our dependence on God, we are saying we cannot do this alone.  And in that dependence there is no space for pride and no space for haughtiness.  We are beggars seeking to lead other beggars to find the bread.

It might be that you have found yourself struggling, struggling to love, struggling to forgive, and struggling not to be conformed to the pattern of this world.  It’s ok to acknowledge these struggles and invite God into the middle of them.

God’s intentions for human relationships and community

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the “silent treatment”.  Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00am for an early morning business flight. Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00am.” He left it in a prominent place where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00am and he had missed his flight.  Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed. The paper said, “It is 5:00am. Wake up.”

Men are not equipped for these kinds of contests!!

Although that may be a funny illustration, for some people it may be a reality, a little close to home.  When we become dysfunctional in a relationship, it can be incredibly hard to get ourselves out of the rut we find ourselves in.  I recognise that not all of us are married, but even if that is the case we are all in a relationship of one form or another.  We all have relationships in common.

So what is “God’s intentions for human relationships and community.”  The two passages from Genesis that we have heard today speak firstly into how we as human beings are created to be in relationship with God, secondly how we called to relate to one another and in community, and thirdly into the nature of a loving relationship between a man and a woman.

I love the book of Genesis.  There is something about it that speaks into the very core of my being and somehow it restores in me a hope for humanity.  It speaks into where we are, and where in God’s grace we will be.  Every time I pick up the Bible and turn to it, I just see a loving God with such an incredible desire to bless us and be in relationship with us.  Genesis reminds us of how we are created to be.

Some things perhaps emerge from this.  As we were originally created, and before the Fall, we had no knowledge of good and evil.  That must be our starting point of understanding how we are called to be.  Being created in God’s image and likeness means that:

  1. We are created with the ability to do good, and to do the right things
  2. Within this, we have free will and the ability to make choices, our own choices
  3. Of all of God’s creation, we are unique and set apart with a specific purpose
  4. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with God. That is the primary reason for our existence
  5. We are created to be in fellowship and relationship with one another. That is a consequence of the primary reason of our existence.  We are hard wired to be in community.
  6. It is God’s desire for us to be fruitful, to live our potential, to be all that we were created to be in Christ.
  7. We all share a common origin and a shared humanity.

It all began to go wrong as a consequence of the Fall, and after lengthy reflection I think there are two key causes that typically lie at the root of this. These causes are power (which is often linked to pride) and fear (which is often linked to shame).  I can probably count on one hand the number of people I have met in life who have been able to wield power and authority well and in a Godly way:

  1. We fail to see ourselves through God’s eyes; we don’t live in the knowledge that we are children of God, and loved unconditionally by God. You see this in the creation account when Adam and Eve experienced shame for the first time.
  2. We fail to see one another through God’s eyes; we are more caught up in me, me, me rather than God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Pride gets in the way of many things in life.
  3. We fail to acknowledge that all of us are created in God’s image and likeness. Even in the 21st century, it is abhorrent that we still live with slavery, oppression of women, and oppression of minorities – the list goes on.  These all have in common an abuse of power and often an unrealistic fear.
  4. We fail to even understand the implications of that and what it means to be in God’s image and likeness and with the responsibility that that imposes on us. It is almost as if we live in denial.
  5. We struggle to wield power and authority in a Godly way, and don’t properly understand what it means to have dominion over something. There is a fine line between leadership and coercion, between a right use of power and abuse.
  6. We live with fear; fear that we are good enough, fear that others are good enough and so on
  7. We live under the consequences of the Fall, rather than in the light of Christ and the New Life that he invites us into

All of these can result in broken and fragmented relationships – with God, with one another and in how we perceive ourselves.  The solution to this is love: “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.” And love involves sacrifice, leaving no space for pride and power struggles, instead opening the door for grace.  Love also involves accountability.  We have an accountability first and foremost to God, but we also have an accountability to one another.

I want you to think about some of the things that you might have said to someone you simply might not like or get along with, whether in anger, or frustration.  I would like to invite you to ask yourself three simple questions and be prepared to answer honestly.

  • When you said whatever it was that you said, did you look upon the person you were speaking to in the knowledge that they are created in God’s image and likeness?
  • Could you imagine Christ saying what you said and in the way that you said it?
  • After you had said it, did you give any consideration to the impact that what you said had on that other person or were you so focussed on getting your point across?

Sometimes we say something with little regard for the damage that those words might have. If you couldn’t imagine Christ saying what you said, and if the reality is that what you said left that other person upset, and distressed…do you think that you were looking upon that person through God’s eyes?  Did you see before you someone who is worthy of dignity and respect because they are created in God’s image and likeness and a child of God?  Or did you lose sight of this reality in the words that you said?

It might be that the root cause of this is because you are struggling with some unresolved issue and have a need for spiritual healing.  It might be that you struggle to deal with power and authority – neither of which are a right, but a privilege and a privilege to be used wisely and to the glory of God.  It might be that you hold a fear and that you subconsciously project that fear onto others.

If we lose sight of that, we often find that we abuse power and subconsciously appoint ourselves as judge, jury and executioner.  God’s truth does not cause people to become bound and in chains; God’s truth sets people free to be all that they are called to be in Christ.  We must live in the knowledge of God’s truth, secure in the reality of his love and grace.

All of us need to be honest about where we hide behind roles in a bid for security, to allay fear or hold onto them as a means of power and control. Neither does us credit.

Christ didn’t come simply to restore the balance.  Christ came to set us free from sin and death, to bring wholeness and healing, dignity and value and restore in us a vision of us being created in God’s image and likeness.  We may experience dysfunctionality in our relationships with one another – our friends, our loved ones, and our brothers and sisters in Christ; but also in our relationship with God.  If you are struggling with a relationship in whatever context, I invite you to bring it to the foot of the cross, bring it to the Lord in prayer.

Let’s take a few moments of silence as we think about these words.