Imagine there’s no heaven: All Souls Service

Introduction

Apparently, nearly 9 out of 10 people in the United States say they believe in heaven, according to a recent ABC News poll. But what exactly do people think of when they think of an afterlife and what do they believe is required to get there?

Almost every culture has wrestled with the question of an afterlife, and most have come to a similar conclusion: the bad end up going to somewhere bad – hell, the good go to somewhere good – heaven. This doesn’t really help much though – it kind of begs the question, “ok, but what is heaven?” And then of course, there is another question – “how might our answer to that question change in light of a faith in Christ?”

I think it’s quite likely if we asked that same question – what is heaven? – of people in our community they would come up with a range of very different answers. These might include:

  • Angels with harps sitting on a cloud
  • A ‘higher place’
  • A place of eternal bliss, whatever that means
  • A place of peace and tranquility
  • God’s home
  • A promise made by God to be with him
  • A place where people are more real, and to stay one has to give up one’s abiding sin
  • A cross between a perfect beach and the Lake District – before tourism
  • Same place as hell
  • A place where people are happy, dancing in nice gowns, don’t have any problems and pains and can feel Gods neverending love and comfort.
  • Nothing – there is no heaven – echoing John Lennon’s famous song Imagine in which he said “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.”

I don’t know if you were aware that (according to the Wikipedia article) John Lennon was apparently inspired to write that song after reading a Christian prayer book. When asked about the song in one of his last interviews he said “The concept of positive prayer…If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true…the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.” So although we may understand from this that he was challenging the division of religions, he wasn’t questioning religion per se. And if you take religion out of the equation, then it is hard to see how you can be left with any concept of heaven and what it might be like. In light of this, I don’t think it is easy at all to imagine there is no heaven!!!

Why is it that the majority of people – nearly 9 out of 10 – in that poll expressed a belief in heaven, even though fewer than 9 out of 10 people even professed a faith? Questions like “where are we going?”, “what happens next?”, “what happens to me when I die” are questions that everyone grapples with, whether consciously or subconsciously, whether professing a faith or no faith.

Does the Bible paint us a picture of heaven?

When we turn to the Bible, it does paint us a picture of heaven, but we have to scratch beneath the surface a bit to see. We do “see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now we know in part; but then shall we know even as also we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12) and even if that picture was totally clear to see, I think it would completely blow us away and we wouldn’t have the capacity to fully understand or appreciate it.

In Ecclesiastes, we are told “Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is interesting in light of that to read about the God gene hypothesis which proposes that a specific gene (VMAT2) predisposes humans towards spiritual or mystic experiences. It looks like science sometimes takes a while to catch up with religion and theology!

In his great book ‘Surprised by Hope’, Bishop Tom Wright poses two questions “First, what is Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? As long as we see Christian hope in terms of ‘going to heaven’, of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions appear as unrelated. But if the Christian hope for God’s new creation, for a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to answer the two questions together.”

The point is as Christians we should not be confused about matters of eternity, about hope or about heaven; more rather as Christians we should be excited by hope, and the prospect of heaven. We need to live our life and faith shaped by eternity, not simply by the here and now. “Among the early Christians, there is complete uniformity about the hope that Christians confess – our hope is in God restoring creation, the new heaven and the new earth, not in God whisking us off to a disembodied eternity on a cloud somewhere!” I think it is all too easy for us to live our life and faith in ignorance of the astonishing consequences of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ. “Jesus’ appearing will be, for those of us who have known and loved him here, like meeting, face to face someone we have only known by letter, or perhaps email.”

Revelation 21:1-6

So when we consider our readings today, I want to first set the scene with our reading from the Book of Revelation before looking at the Gospel reading and see how they help us to grapple with these questions and matters of faith and reveal to us something of heaven and hope. Some points to consider:

  1. There will be a new heaven and a new earth.

This world that we live in is not a mistake – God does not make mistakes. There will be a coming together of heaven and earth. Tom Wright again – “The Bible does not teach that the end of the story is that Christians go off to heaven as naked souls. Rather the Bible teaches that the new heaven and the new earth come down to earth.” This world will be taken, transformed and redeemed – because that is what God does. That is the work that he began through his Son, our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ. This is the work that he will take to completion, and is an integral part of his Kingdom having come, his Kingdom coming or breaking in now and his Kingdom fully coming in the future when Jesus Christ returns. It is like worlds colliding. It is where God takes this world and shakes the hell out of it.

2. We will be God’s people and God will dwell with us.

This speaks of relationship, fellowship, unity, restoration, love, and           intimacy. It has undertones of the bringing in of peace – the Shalom – wholeness, completeness, rightness that Jewish people speak of; but also of justice and fairness.

3. He will wipe every tear from our eyes

There are times when we encounter the brokenness of this world that we feel like crying a river of tears. If we feel like this, imagine how God must feel? The Bible speaks of God as the Comforter. This is brought out so well in the songwriter Michael Card’s beautiful song called the Job Suite in which he sings the story of Job:

“Lord, send a Comforter now to my door,

So that this terror will frighten no more:

A Counsellor between us, to come hear my oath;

Someone who could lay a hand on us both.”

We are created in God’s image and likeness; in some small measure, I believe we can empathise with God in those times when we are closest to him. It is good to share one another’s burdens and comfort one another, as God seeks to comfort us by his presence. In having that empathy, we are reminded that God has searched us and knows us. He knows “when we sit down and when we rise up; he discerns our thoughts from far away. He searches out our paths and our lying down, and is acquainted with all our ways.” (Psalm 139:1-3)

Our very tears are precious to God. I have come to understand that as my children grew up; you know, those times when they wept and I kissed away their tears and told them it would all be ok – and it was? In the Psalms we are told: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (Psalm 56:8). God doesn’t forget. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

4. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away

One of the most powerful statements I think that Jesus ever made was “It is finished” (John 19:30). As a result of what Jesus did for us on the cross, he conquered sin and death. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. We must live our lives in the knowledge of that truth. There WILL come a time when in God’s grace we fully embrace that reality.

5. I am making everything new!

I like to think of this in this way…everything that is broken and wrong will be fixed. Hallelujah! And let’s be clear, it used that fully inclusive word, EVERYTHING. In God’s economy nothing is wasted. He can take, transform and redeem everything – even the most broken, most desperate and bleakest situations and things.

6. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life

We are powerfully reminded here about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman – the woman at the well – “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15). Are you world-weary, and feeling spiritually impoverished? If you are, drink and drink deeply so that your thirst might truly be quenched.

John 11:32-44

In light of these thoughts on that incredible passage from the book of Revelation, we look at our Gospel reading – perhaps with fresh eyes:

  1. Mary had had an encounter with death and was heartbroken – she was utterly and doubly devastated – not only because of losing her brother, but also because deep down she knew that Jesus could have prevented it – had he been there. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
  2. Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. We must never think that God is unaffected by suffering, injustice and the wrongs of this world. Jesus wept, we are told, and continued to be deeply moved.
  3. Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Can you hear his voice now saying the same thing to you? He also says “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1). God has made promises to us…if we believe and trust in him – and unlike us, he ALWAYS delivers and comes through.
  4. Lazarus was not resurrected at that time; instead he was raised from the dead. There is a huge difference between being raised from the dead and resurrection. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was stood there alive as he always had been. When Lazarus later died, in coming to the resurrection he would have a resurrection body – recognisably him, but different. We must get away from the unhelpful picture of a soul – and bear in mind that we are flesh and blood – we are embodied, as well as spiritual beings. That is precisely why we have the capacity to love God with all our heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intellect, mental capacity) and strength (physicality). But what we see here is Jesus’ not so subtle clue that he really did come to conquer sin and death.

There are circumstances in life that cause us to lose hope, to lose sight of eternity and lose that connection with God. It may be that we have lost loved ones, and are keenly aware of their absence. It may be that we encounter grief for many other reasons – unfulfilled hopes and dreams, relationships that have not worked out or the many challenges in life. As a consequence, we may feel like we are dead inside, almost as if we have given up and lost hope. It is into these situations that Jesus comes and commands that the grave clothes are taken off and we are set free – to be all that we are called to be in him. That is a people deeply loved by God, in close friendship with him, a people who believe and trust in him – a people not destined for death, brokenness and pain but a people who one day will see life in all its glory like 3D HD Technicolor compared to B&W.

“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” Is it? Is it really that easy? I think not. Amen

Discipleship: Role Models of Faith

Introduction

In the first sermon in this series on discipleship, one of the things I said was “our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him.” And so in this sermon today, I wanted us to spend some time together looking at role models of faith – people who had those grace-touched moments in their lives when their understanding of and belief in Christ was revealed in how they responded to him, and the subsequent impact it had on their lives.

This is something we will all hopefully find to be both challenging and encouraging in our walk of faith and growth as disciples. The aim is that by considering role models of faith who we wouldn’t necessarily first think of, whose experiences can nonetheless give us food for thought, we might be encouraged to examine:

  • What we believe, and what is our understanding of Jesus Christ?
  • What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
  • How we might respond in light of that belief, and so…

Be encouraged to reflect on and review what impact being a Disciples of Jesus has in our lives.

If you want a concrete example of the impact that role models of faith have in our life, think of the times when people from the congregation have stood up and shared testimony with us here, and the way in which it has been deeply moving and / or encouraging and how it has helped to shape and inform our identity and character as a church.

Some of my role models

With that in mind I want to share with you some role models of faith from my journey:

John

John was an elder from a housechurch I attended for three years in Birmingham. He was like a second father to me. It is hard to explain why, but we simply connected. John was someone who mentored me, who was always happy to discuss the things of faith I struggled with and not stick to script on the church discipleship course all members were supposed to take.

Judy

I got to know Judy roughly 7 years ago as I began to get involved in a Fresh Expression of church that involved a form of online ministry. Despite the fact that she lives in America, and for the first 6 of those years we never met in flesh and blood, we made a connection. Judy became one of my accountability partners, someone who is constant and true, a ‘critical friend’; someone who sees Christ in me, and even though we have some profound theological differences, she has deepened my walk of faith and my journey of discipleship and always been there through my darkest and lightest times. She has seen me at my best, and at my worst and still loves me like a sister loves a brother.

Barbara

Barbara was a member of my former congregation who I used to visit and take home communion to. I always used to ask her if there was anything specific she wanted prayer for, and without exception her request was always for someone else and never about herself. She was always self-effacing, and never once complained about anything. She had a deep faith that was built on solid ground. One day when I visited she said she had something she wanted to share with me; she told me that she was dying from cancer and had been aware of it for quite some time. She wanted me to know because she had to go into hospital and didn’t want anyone to wonder where she was. Her faith, even to the end, was unwavering. She was grace-touched, deeply aware of the presence of Christ and ready to meet her maker. I was humbled.

These are some, but not all of my role models of faith from my lived experience. Now, if I asked you who might be our role models in the Gospel accounts, we certainly may well think again of the disciples. Don’t get me wrong – I think that rightly the disciples can and should be amongst our role models. If you remember last time when I spoke about failure and grace, I said that one of the reasons Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.

Despite this, it is still all too easy to set people on a pedestal. It is easy to think about the up-front public ministries as being of more importance than other forms of ministry. But show me someone who is an encourager, a helper, an intercessor or a nurturer any time – you know who I mean – the person who comes alongside you at just the right time and speaks words of truth, encouragement, life and affirmation to you, or the person who helps set up and clear away the tables and chairs or helps to wash up, the person who diligently prays for the people in this church and our local community without drawing attention to themselves, and the people who gently inspire those new to faith in the faith. All of these people are people who are grace-touched and have that revelation of Christ. You see something of Christ in them.

My role models from Mark’s Gospel

With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to 3 of my role models from Mark’s Gospel who were not disciples, at least not at first! These were people who simply got it!

  1. The man with an evil spirit (Legion) – Mark 5:1-20
    1. The man was in a terrible and desperate place few if any can ever really understand. He had been treated as sub-human, often bound in chains. The state of his affliction was horrific – he had lost control due to possession, and incapable of living with the dignity and esteem of his humanity. He was tormented and controlled by the forces of evil. He was possessed by an unclean spirit, and lived in the tombs amongst the dead bodies which would have been considered unclean, and his condition and circumstances meant that he was alienated from the society he was part of.
    2. He was deeply disturbed – tormented. He self-harmed, and would cut himself with stones and cry out. For anyone witnessing that it must have been deeply disturbing.
    3. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. We see Jesus’ power and authority at work – even though evil, the unclean spirit both recognised and acknowledged Jesus’ divinity. It is a powerful reminder to us that Jesus has the power, the authority and the victory.
    4. The man went on a journey of profound transition – from captivity to freedom, insanity to sanity, despair to hope, devastation to restoration, and unclothed to clothed. It was such a profound transition, that people who had witnessed how the man had been before were afraid.
    5. Jesus told the man “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
    6. Do we ever write off people because we are judgemental, and have a lack of faith that God can and does transform lives? Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace is sufficient for us?
  2. The woman with the issue of blood – Mark 5:21-43
    1. The woman had undergone all manner of treatments from physicians over the course of 12 years; she had spent all she had. She was triply outcast from society because she was in poverty, unclean (and could never undergo ritual purification (Leviticus 15:19ff) and she was a woman (and therefore considered lesser in a patriarchal society). And yet, she had heard about Jesus and expressed an incredible faith. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” She didn’t need or expect to have Jesus’ full attention; she didn’t need or expect to be in the limelight and the focus of his attention. In some way she had a revelation of Christ where she recognised his power and holiness.
    2. She responded to Jesus with humility, reverence and honesty. She “…came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” When people “got” Jesus and had the deep encounter and revelation of him they tended to fall to their knees in worship.
    3. Jesus spoke of her as a “daughter”, i.e. no longer an outcast but one of the family. He affirmed her, blessed her and assured her. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
  3. The widow’s offering – Mark 12:41-44
    1. This short passage speaks volumes about the heart-attitude that the woman had. We see in her actions a true act of sacrifice and commitment. In our giving, it is not the amount that we give that matters to God, it is the attitude with which we give it. This doesn’t simply apply to our financial resources, but to our time and talents too.
    2. We are reminded of this in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

So there you have it; 3 of my role models of faith from Mark’s gospel. The full list of my role models in Mark’s Gospel is a long one! But I hope that these insights have given you food for thought.

Group Discussion

Introductory Activity and Questions

  1. In 2’s or 3’s, share with each other examples of people who have been your role models of faith in your own personal journeys of faith – people who you have encountered who have inspired you or encouraged you in your faith. Can you share who these people were?
  2. What was it about them that inspired or encouraged you?
  3. If you could make a list of the hallmarks or characteristics of a role model or Christian mentor, what would it include? Here is what mine includes:
    1. Humility – grace-touched, with a gentle spirit
    2. Aware of the love of God for them and others; someone who gives God the glory
    3. Someone with a grateful heart
    4. Affirming and encouraging – not possessing a critical spirit
    5. Challenging – able to speak the truth in love
    6. Availability and hospitality
    7. Good stewards of all God has blessed them with (time, talents and resources)
    8. Maturity of faith, and attitude – balanced and experienced, grounded in God’s word and secure
    9. Transparency – someone who is honest and genuine
    10. Good track record – a person of integrity, someone who practices what they preach, and is consistent across all walks of life
    11. Someone who is real and recognises that they are a work in progress
  4. What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
  5. How we might respond in light of that belief – what three things could we do between now and Christmas to deepen our faith OR the faith of others?

The man with an evil spirit (Legion)

  1. Think about any people you may have encountered who have gone through a massive change in their life as a result of coming to faith and share this in 2’s or 3’s.
  2. The people who saw the change in the man were afraid, perhaps doubting that the man really had come to a place of healing and wholeness. How do we avoid being judgemental and sceptical about people who have gone through a huge U-turn in life to come to a place of faith in Christ?
  3. We are all likely to have seen examples of where God has transformed people’s lives (including hopefully our own). When people don’t seem to grow or respond, what are the likely reasons for that?
  4. Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace really is sufficient for us? Do we ever feel inadequate, not good enough, perhaps held back by events in the past? How can we encourage each other to enter into that deeper relationship with Christ? How can we develop tenacity and sticking power, to “run the race” – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The woman with the issue of blood

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. What does holiness mean? Discuss in 2’s or 3’s.
  3. How does our belief, and our view of Christ affect our worship?
  4. Is Sunday the end of the week or the beginning of the week for us? What is our hope and expectation of worship on a Sunday? Is it all about us, or is it all about God? Remember the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship and fellowship with God.

The widow’s offering

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. Discuss the following passage in 2’s or 3’s.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

Discipleship: Failure & Grace

What does being a disciple mean to you?

At the beginning of this series on discipleship, I asked the question “What does being a disciple mean to you?” and together we explored how we might complete the sentence “A disciple is someone who…”  Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience.

It is very easy for us to think about the life and ministry of the disciples and in some ways set them on a pedestal, and to almost come to some sort of subconscious belief or view that we would never make the grade…or think that we aren’t good enough to be disciples. But perhaps surprisingly when we think about words we might associate with discipleship, another word I believe we should include is failure.

The Missionary George Smith

Many years ago, a Moravian missionary named George Smith went to Africa. He had been there only a short time and had only one convert, a poor woman, when he was driven from the country. He died shortly afterward, on his knees, praying for Africa. He was considered a failure. But a company of men stumbled onto the place where he had prayed and found a copy of the Bible he had left. Shortly after they met the one poor woman who was his convert.

A hundred years later his mission counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith.

How Mark portrays the disciples

I don’t know if you have ever worked through Mark’s gospel and looked at the way in which he chose to depict the disciples.  Some theologians say that of all of the Gospel accounts, Mark’s Gospel is the most critical about the disciples. It is easy at first glance to see why:

  • The disciples failed to understand Jesus’ parables (only Mark 4:13; cf. Matt 13:16-17, 51)
  • When they spoke with Jesus in the boat, they didn’t understand what he meant (Mark 8:14-21; cf. Matt 16:5-12; Luke 12:1)
  • After the first Passion prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter (Mark 8:32-33)
  • The disciples were unable to perform an exorcism (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matt 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43a)
  • After the second Passion prediction, the disciples argued about which of them was “greatest” (Mark 9:33-34)
  • After the third Passion prediction, James and John asked for “seats of honour” (Mark 10:35-40)
  • Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities (Mark 14:10-11, 18-21, 41-46)
  • Peter denied even knowing Jesus (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72)
  • All the disciples ran away after Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-52; cf. 14:27)
  • The women left the empty tomb in fear and silence (Mark 16:8)

Their track record certainly leaves a lot to be desired doesn’t it? Are these the kind of people we should really put on a pedestal?  Are these the kind of people we should aspire to be?

Mark is also critical about the ways in which the disciples responded to Jesus because of their lack of insight and understanding:

  • The disciples “pursued” or “hunted for” Jesus despite Jesus having got up early for a quiet time to be with His Father (only Mark 1:36)
  • They were afraid during a storm and were reproached for lacking faith (only Mark 4:40; cf. Luke 8:25)
  • After Jesus walked on water, they didn’t understand about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (only Mark 6:52; cf. Matt 14:28-32)
  • They had eyes that didn’t see and ears that didn’t hear (only Mark 8:18-19; cf. Matt 16:12)
  • The disciples didn’t believe the resurrection witnesses (Mark 16:13, 14, 16)

Hope in the midst of failure

One of the most striking examples of failure in Mark’s Gospel can be found in the account of Peter’s denial of Christ.  “You will all fall away… before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”  Even in the starkness of this passage, we see something of God’s grace which at the time probably went completely over the heads of the disciples.  It is easy for us to miss it too.  Jesus said “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”  In other words, despite knowing how the disciples would desert him, and despite knowing that Peter would disown him three times, Jesus still gave an assurance that they would come back together once again after he had risen.  And as we know from the Gospel accounts, Peter was indeed forgiven, reinstated and also transformed.  God’s strength was made perfect in his weakness – he was grace touched for the rest of his life and ministry, and Jesus’ prophetic words about him became true… “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

I think one of the reasons why Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.  And when, like the disciples, our track record leaves a lot to be desired and we too show a lack of insight and understanding, Jesus will be right there waiting for us – strength to prevail, and grace and mercy when we fail.

One of the things that saddens me the most is when I see people who are too paralysed by fear – fear of so many things – to even try, people who can’t let go and let God.  And one of the things that perpetuates that fear is how critical the church – and I mean the church in general – can sometimes be.  Jesus said “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)  People who are critical often have critical spirits and are not at peace with themselves or with God; if they were grace-touched, and were truly aware of their poverty of spirit, they would also be grace givers.  We are called to disciple each other, and spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Faith is being able to risk failure…“faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)

A journey into grace

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples reminds us that we are not called to follow the disciples who have gone on before us, or even the disciples we journey with now; we are called to follow Christ and Christ alone.  The writer and Senior Pastor Revd Michael Foss said “Leaders in the church should not have disciples.  When they do, the community of faith all too often degenerates into a personality cult.  When the leader leaves, the church falls apart.  The leader’s call is not to gather people around himself or herself, but to gather them around Jesus.”  If you go into any church and expect to see perfection when you look at its leadership, then you will find your expectations dashed.  If you go into a church and hope to see a leadership that is grace-touched, hope-filled, alive with a knowledge of God’s awesome love with a heart to work out faith with fear and trembling, then you may find your hopes realised.  It is said there is no such thing as a perfect church and no such thing as a perfect congregation either.

People have dignity when they can make decisions and then live with the consequences of those decisions, even if the decisions that they have taken were wrong.  But when we have the freedom and ability to make decisions, we need to be clear we MUST accept responsibility for making them and be prepared to live with and journey through the consequences, as uncomfortable as it may make us.

Of equal importance is realising that in God’s economy it is only when we are in that place of failure can we acknowledge more fully our dependency on and need for God and his love and grace.  It is only when we recognise the depth of the poverty of our spirit that we can recognise and appreciate the enormity of God’s lavish grace.  If there are times when you feel that you aren’t good enough, the reality is none of us are…not one.  “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a).  In the knowing, the deep knowing that we are not good enough, there is an even deeper truth we must write on the tablet of our hearts – we are infinitely loved by a God who made us.  Sometimes we have to journey to come to a realisation of that.

The mark of a genuine disciple is someone who journeys well with and through failure, someone who in the depth of their brokenness can say like Job in all integrity “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)

Michael Foss also said “Modelling discipleship means being honest and transparent about one’s own life of faith, admitting difficulties where they exist, owning up to mistakes, and making amends – but never as failure!  In a discipleship church, failure is not failure if we learn from it, grow from it, and change as a result of it.”  The mark of a disciple is when we are no longer in fear because we know the love of God.

The culture we must seek to foster together in being disciples is a culture of grace, forgiveness and self-sacrificial living; we must seek to put away “…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2)  Yes, there will be times when we might say something to each other that “gets our back up”; there might be times when we cause offence, and likely there will be times when we fail to live up to expectations.  But I ask you to exercise grace, I ask you to love each other sacrificially, I ask you to seek to look at one another as God sees you – as beloved children.  And I ask you to remember, always remember, this:

He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So when we go out this week, let our memory verse be this:  “Go and learn what this means…I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

I hope you are encouraged by this aspect of discipleship.  I hope that you approach Mark’s gospel with a different perspective.  I hope you realise that God call people just like them, just like you, and just like me.  I hope you find courage to step out in faith, to try…God knows your heart.  He knows mine.  And every time we fail, as at times we will, then together let’s journey into a deeper knowledge of God’s love and grace.  And let’s celebrate those glorious times we truly shine with the light of Christ and his strength really is made perfect in our weakness.

Amen

Discipleship – Calling & Following

As I was thinking and praying about this particular theme, it really struck me that in the context of discipleship there are often pairs of words that very much go together; words like “calling and following” “commissioning and sending”, and “failure and grace” – which will all feature in this series.

My hope and heartfelt prayer is that this series would stir us all up and encourage us to live more intentionally as Disciples of Christ, and give us a passion to deepen our relationship with God and along the way have some of those lightbulb moments when perhaps we may have some revelation about discipleship that we hadn’t had before.

And so our series begins today as we look at calling and following.

Opening

I wanted to begin by asking you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what your response to the following question might be “What does being a disciple mean to you?”. You may even wish to jot your responses down on a piece of paper.

Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience. Jesus didn’t simply call his disciples and then say “ok, now you have responded, on your way…get on with it.” Instead once they had responded to his call, Jesus commissioned or equipped and then sent them. Next week’s service will take a look at the nature of commissioning, and being sent.

It is interesting how the Evangelists give a realistic portrayal of good and bad traits in the disciples; Mark in particular tends to cover the many failures of the disciples, and we will be looking at that in more detail when we think about failure and grace in this series. All however also show how Jesus:

  • Taught them (Mark 4:10–12),
  • Corrected them (Matthew 16:5–12),
  • Admonished them (Matthew 17:19–20),
  • Supported them (Luke 22:31–34),
  • Comforted them (John 20:19–22) and
  • Restored them (John 21:15–19).

In turn the disciples could become examples of what Jesus desires to do for the church (Matthew 28:19–20). In becoming disciples ourselves, if our expectation is that we will enter in to that relationship with Christ and remain unchanged, then we are deluding ourselves.

When we are shaped and moulded by God it is because ALL of us are works in progress…none of us are the finished article. The paradox is, as we draw closer to a holy and awesome God and we begin to capture a vision of his holiness, we recognise our own poverty of spirit…and the enormity of his grace and love. I hope people can see that I am grace touched. I hope people might see how Christ has made a difference in my life despite me; but I hope even more that he would continue to make an even bigger difference in my life as I seek to follow him.

The difference in how we respond

If I asked you the question “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” I would certainly hope that the response would be a unified “Yes”. And if I then asked the question “Do you follow Christ”, then again I would certainly hope that the response would be another unified “Yes”.

The thing is, our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him. There are some people who merely think that Jesus was a prophet, a wise and gifted person. That paints a very different picture to believing that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Depending on whether we believe the former or the latter, the way we live our faith and our very world view will be changed.

There were those who followed Jesus because they were called, and they subsequently responded and believed. But there were also those who followed Jesus because of sensationalism – the crowds. He called both the crowd and his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The crowd in the main may have followed in the absence of belief. There were many who followed Jesus and yet not all believed and some even fell away because the price – the sacrifice they had to make – the cost of discipleship – was too great.

It is also possible to someone to believe and choose not to follow. Even Satan believes in Christ. Yet Satan does not follow Christ. Whereas the disciples followed as well as believed and the faith and belief they had in Christ, which took time to develop in each and every one of them resulted in the growth of Christianity as we know.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry his disciples were called to “follow” Jesus, and in responding they demonstrated a conscious and intentional allegiance to his person. Now, Jewish disciples would typically follow their master around, often literally imitating or emulating him. But there were some striking differences about Jesus and his disciples:

  • Jewish disciples would choose and approach the rabbi they wanted to follow and be disciples of, and if and only if the rabbi agreed could they become his disciple. In contrast, Jesus chose his disciples. He called them and invited them to respond. He does that with us too…we are all called, we are all invited to respond. And so rather than the disciple taking the initiative in choosing the master, as was characteristic among the Jews, Jesus emerges as the central figure who dominates the scene and calls his own disciples by means of his call. It isn’t likely that Jesus had had previous personal encounters with those he called to be his disciples…nor had opportunities to befriend them makes the significance of his call stand out even more along with the disciples response.

Although discipleship was a voluntary matter and choice for typical Jewish disciples seeking to follow a Rabbi, with Jesus the initiative lay with his call (Mark 1:17; 2:14; Matthew 4:19; 9:9; cf. Luke 5:10–11, 27–28) and his choice (John 15:16) of those who would be his disciples. The response to the call involves:

  • Recognition and belief in Jesus’ identity (John 2:11; 6:68–69),
  • Obedience to his summons (Mark 1:18, 20) and
  • Counting the cost of full allegiance to him (Luke 14:25–28; Matthew 19:23–30).

Jesus’ calling is the beginning of something new. It means losing one’s old life (Mark 8:34–37; Lk 9:23–25) and finding new life in the family of God through obeying the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46–50).

  • Jewish disciples were typically the most educated – the best of the best of the best – who had demonstrated their aptitude and grasp of Torah and the Talmud. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples hadn’t necessarily reached those lofty heights of educational attainment in Jewish society and culture. Jesus’ disciples left their occupations, and James and John also left their father (1:18, 20). Discipleship meant leaving behind their way of life and former ties. The motif of the cost of discipleship intensifies throughout the Gospel.  The disciples join themselves to Jesus, to accompany him and to participate in his life (see 3:14) In responding to Jesus call, the disciples began a journey deeper in to faith and a relationship with God that continued for the rest of their life. And they had to learn some hard lessons along the way.
  • The goal of these Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves and to have their own disciples who would follow them. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and teacher and to follow him only (cf. Matthew 23:1–12). As they grew as disciples, their life and faith pointed to Jesus and not to themselves. It was a case of “it’s all about HIM, and not it’s all about me.” The disciples of Jesus were to engage in a new vocation—to become “fishers of men” rather than students of the Law. The disciples not only accompanied Jesus but also were enabled by him them to share His ministry and eventually continue it. And so the calling of the disciples was not simply that they would learn and transmit his teaching of the law, as might followers of Rabbis – but that they might become “fishers of men”. It is astonishing that the first disciples were prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus. “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Both being a disciple as well as making disciples is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, for us to fully fulfil what it is to be a disciple we must seek not only to deepen our learning and relationship with God through prayer and Bible study, but also to engage in the making of other disciples. We are called with a purpose.

Response and application

Whenever we think about discipleship we can be encouraged, as well as challenged. We can’t avoid the challenges forever…

In what ways do we recognise our continuing growth as disciples? Do we ever do a spiritual “health check” – perhaps prayerfully reflecting on where we have been and where we are now? Do we follow Christ AND believe? Have we responded fully to his call or have we become complacent in our faith? Are we prepared to take up our cross? We are all called, and we all have a choice about responding – not at all, half-heartedly or whole heartedly – with body, soul, mind and strength.

In what ways in the worshipping life and ministry of this church do we make disciples? Making disciples isn’t just about people coming to faith in Christ, even if it begins with that. It is about that journey into a deeper relationship with Christ and inviting him to be Lord of our life. Discipleship fundamentally involves all of one’s being, not just the mind or intellect.

It isn’t about us taking God to people…it is about us having encounters with people and seeking to see how God is already at work and inviting them to recognise that too.

Jesus always finds people where they are, speaks in a language and context with which they were wholly familiar, but gives it an entirely different significance for them as they ultimately become apostles. Today, we all too often expect unbelievers to make all kinds of adjustments—in dress, initiation into our ways of worship, language and thought —before a proper conversation can begin. Familiarity sometimes causes us to lose sight of how visitors might perceive the encounter they have with us at church.  When visitors come, unless they are received with sensitivity and wisdom with a generous spirit of welcome when they are at their weakest and least comfortable, and most disorientated, we will fail to connect with them. In so doing we put so many obstacles between them and the simplicity of the gospel itself. We have much to learn about starting where people are. It has been good for us as a church to think about this on the “Everybody Welcome” course.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I invite you to engage in a spiritual health check and think about where you are in the journey as a disciple. May you recognise the many ways in which Jesus is calling you and may you have the wisdom and the courage to follow. Amen

The Good Shepherd

One of the many things I have really appreciated about coming back to live in Yorkshire is that we live on the doorstep of such beautiful countryside. It is said for example that Skipton is the Gateway to the Dales and I think that the scenery is simply breathtaking.

On days off, when the weather has been kind, I have really valued an opportunity to recharge by driving into the Dales and taking in the scenery, visiting some of the quaint towns and villages and going for walks. On these outings you cannot fail to notice the vast swathes of farmland – cows and sheep for as far as the eye can see.

Springtime this year has been incredible…everywhere you looked there were sheep and new born lambs. And seeing that reminded me of that great series “One Man and His Dog” which featured various sheepdog trials.

As a child I owned a border collie, whose parents were working sheepdogs in the Dales, so it’s probably fair to say that I have a great fondness for sheepdogs and therefore I particularly enjoyed watching that series. And knowing how intelligent my dog was, it was never a surprise to me to see man and dog working together with such synchronicity, even if it was always an astonishing sight to see. What you may not also be surprised to know is that recent scientific studies have shown that sheep are far more intelligent than they have previously been given credit for! No longer should sheep be a by-word for stupidity and mindlessly following the crowd. And if you want proof of that, you only need to look to a farm in Marsden near Huddersfield where sheep taught themselves to roll 8ft (3m) across hoof-proof metal cattle grids – and raid villagers’ valley gardens. Dorothy Lindley, a former Conservative councillor in the historic textile town on the edge of the Pennine uplands in West Yorkshire, said: “They lie down on their side, or sometimes their back, and just roll over and over the grids until they are clear.”

I was reminded of all of this recently in a number of different ways…when I spoke with a family recently about baptism I invited them to choose a Bible to be presented to them in the service and they choose the Little Lamb’s Bible which invites us to cuddle up with Little Lamb and know God’s Love! Sounds like a smart little lamb to me. And then this week, I went to visit a member of one of my congregations who like me had owned a border collie for many years – and there was an incredible painting of it in her living room.

The shepherding practice in the Dales is certainly very different to shepherding practice in the Middle East. In the Dales, the sheep are driven by the sheepdog, working closely with the shepherd. Whereas in the Middle East, the sheep follow the shepherd and recognise his voice. It isn’t uncommon to see maybe 5 different flocks of sheep with their shepherds coming together at a well for the sheep to be watered. But what is incredible is that when it is time for a flock to move on, the right sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd even if all the flocks are mixed in together. The sheep follow the shepherd.

In both cases, whether in the Dales or in the Middle East, the care and attention, and the protection given by the shepherd is incredible. Shepherds will know each individual sheep – their markings and features, and even their character. Let’s be under no illusion here, shepherding is a hard, demanding and at times costly life.

In Jesus’ time, the imagery of a shepherd will have been very well known in his culture. And here in our reading today we find Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. And note Jesus doesn’t simply say “I AM the Shepherd”…more than that, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd”. And what are the characteristics of a Good Shepherd? We are told the Good Shepherd:

  • Lays down his life for the sheep
  • Knows his sheep AND his sheep know him
  • Brings other sheep from outside of the pen into his care and protection
  • Has a flock of sheep that listens to his voice
  • Has a flock of sheep that follow him; they respond
  • Has one flock

And in other passages that speak of Jesus as the Good Shepherd we learn that he:

  • Leads them out to pasture
  • Seeks out the lost sheep
  • Protects his sheep from danger

Jesus is able to do this because he has the ability and the authority; we see that in the promise he makes…“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.

I don’t know where you may be in your faith. I do know that when I heard the call of the Good Shepherd many years ago, I chose to follow him. I chose to respond. It brings me much comfort and assurance in life.

I am sure that we all have hopes and aspirations in our life. And we can choose to express those hopes and aspirations in some very important ways – one being to declare our faith through Baptism or Confirmation.  We may choose to seek to get to know Jesus, and enter into a relationship with him…to know God’s love, God’s presence and God’s protection; to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and to hear his voice.

I think I’ve lived long enough, and experienced enough in life to say that to know unconditional love is probably the most precious thing we may ever experience in life. And that is what God offers us. That is what God invites us into. And in that we have a choice…we can only know such love by being in relationship with the one offering it and by accepting it and responding.

People think about life choices at many key points in life…a birth, a baptism, a wedding and a funeral. In a service of baptism we are reminded of the promises that God makes and the promises that parents and godparents have made in response, let’s take a moment to examine where we find ourselves and the choices we have made. Have we heard the voice of the Good Shepherd? Do we know God’s unconditional love? If you want to know more, when we come to our prayers why not say in the silence of your heart “Jesus, I want to know you. I want to hear your voice.” Amen

Hospitality

The account of Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre being visited by the three men is a well-known and oft quoted passage that speaks to us so clearly about the abundant and generous spirit of welcome and hospitality that was common nomadic practice.   We see echoes of it in the Book of Hebrews “1 Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:1-2)

We know that it was God who Abraham entertained or received through his welcome, and there are some specific points I wanted to make about the passage:

  • God might be present or appear amongst us when we least expect it. Abraham was sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day when the LORD appeared. God was ‘embodied’ and accompanied by 2 angels (who later left for Sodom).
  • Our hospitality should not be dependent on who the stranger is that we entertain. At first, Abraham didn’t recognise that he was being visited by God and yet his greeting was not lessened in any way. He ran from the tent entrance to meet them rather than simply rising to greet them, and bowed down to the ground – the kind of greeting that exceeds that given to a mere stranger. We should greet strangers and show an unreserved, unrestrained and generous hospitality irrespective of who they are and with no expectation of reward or return which isn’t to say we shouldn’t have ANY expectation as we shall see later.
  • Real hospitality is sacrificial and costly. Abraham offered costly gifts in the desert. He offered water to wash the feet, choice flour for cakes, a “tender and good” calf, and curds and milk. Abraham gave of the best that he had. Again we see echoes of this in Jesus converting the water into the best of wine.

We cannot show hospitality if our hearts are in the wrong place or if we don’t seek the mind of Christ. If we don’t look after ourselves properly – we are tired, grumpy, burned out physically and spiritually and trying to do things in our own strength then at best our attempt to be hospitable will come across as being uncharitable or reluctant. We see something of the place our hearts should be in our reading from 1 Peter. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. 11 Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” To be in this place frequently involves dying to self and not allowing our ego and selfish desires and expectations to dominate. It involves getting rid of a critical spirit. We’ve all come across it before “He should be doing this…she should be doing that” etc. And we are to serve with whatever gift we have received from God – whatever that gift might be…and I know some people who are truly blessed with such an incredible gift of welcome and hospitality. We are to be constant and unswerving in our love for one another and the stranger.

One of my favourite authors who wrote at length about hospitality is Henri Nouwen. He speaks of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality which is not only very challenging but also gives us much food for thought:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, welcome, to accept.”

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking our words more seriously and discovering their true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.

In his book, Reaching Out, Nouwen paints the spiritual progression from hostility to hospitality as an essential reflex and result of the spiritual life. Nouwen sees hospitality as being characterised by a great expectation for the presence of God in all his relational encounters. For Nouwen, hospitality is a combination of receptivity, openness to others, and honesty. He writes “Hospitality wants to offer friendship without binding the guest [receptivity] and freedom without leaving him alone [honesty].” Elaborating on this simple definition, Nouwen writes:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines. It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances, free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. Reaching out to others without being receptive to them is more harmful than helpful and easily leads to manipulation and even violence, violence in thoughts, words and actions.

Note though, in Nouwen’s commentary there is an implicit expectation of change…the creation of a space where change can and will take place. Whenever Christ had an encounter with someone who was receptive, they never remained unchanged. All too often the wider church fails to acknowledge this really key point. When we practice hospitality there should be an expectation of change, even if there has to be and a humble recognition and acknowledgement that that change might begin and end with us and us alone. It is God who transforms lives and changes hearts; we are called to be holy because he is holy. But we must also have a hope that the one receiving hospitality might be receptive to Christ in and through us too.

To practice receptivity of this magnitude requires tremendous courage, honesty and candour – speaking the truth in love. Nouwen continues:

Real receptivity asks for confrontation because space can only be a welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position…We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it any way they want…When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and nobody. We can enter into communication with the other only when our life choices, attitudes and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.

At the heart of our meeting has to be grace and love – with each other and especially with our enemies. Receptivity is by no means passive.  It is dynamic and active and is a catalyst for change and growth tempered by love.

A community commitment to the receptivity and honesty that Nouwen bundles into his invitation to hospitality would catalyse an enormous transformation in the authenticity, accessibility, and mission of the church.

Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other. It is not difficult to see how those ‘who know it all’ can kill a conversation and prevent an interchange of ideas. [also] When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for a stranger. In a fearful environment it is not easy to keep our heart open to the wide range of human experiences.

There is a paradigm for hospitality which is illustrated well in the Book of Romans and I would have these words etched into the very fabric of the existence of the church:

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

We as always, have a choice about how we may facilitate that – how we might help it to happen. One choice might be to covenant ourselves to God.

To be a Christian means belonging to a diverse and varied community. It means sharing my life with people who have very different views to mine; and that’s hard! It means learning to differ in Christian love, respecting opinions other than mine and always seeking to understand the experiences of faith and life that lead people to the convictions that shape their discipleship. Realistically I will therefore experience the church as a place of joyful unity and painful conflict. It isn’t something I find easy. I don’t think it is something that anyone finds easy. We often have such huge and unrealistic expectations of each other. We need to be prepared to repent and ask for forgiveness. We need to be prepared to make peace with God, with each other and with ourselves. This will be so because it is a community of forgiven sinners not finished saints, and because the questions matter deeply and passionately, and because we will always ‘see dimly’ in this life.

Let’s enter into that covenant with God and each other now. I invite you to stand and say with me the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours.

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing,

put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,

or laid aside for you,

exalted for you,

or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.” Amen

Bible Sunday

Remember that ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” 2 Timothy 3.15 (GNB)

Today is Bible Sunday and we will be looking at the Word of God together in this sermon. One of the sessions that we cover on the Alpha course is about why and how we should read the Bible and we will be touching upon some of the material used in that session in this sermon.

But to begin with, I would like to ask you to do something…grab a piece of paper and a pen and in a couple of minutes write down all the reasons you can think of for why we should read the Bible.  Once you have your list, take another piece of paper and now write down all the reasons you can think of for what makes reading the Bible difficult or challenging.

Ghandi said to the Christians of his day: ‘You look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle torn planet. But you treat it as though it were nothing more than a piece of literature.

The Psalmist says “The words of God are more precious than gold.” (Psalm 19:10) At her coronation the Queen was handed a Bible by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, with these words: “We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

During their ordination, priests within the Church of England are presented with a Bible “Receive this book, as a sign of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.

Christians when giving evidence in court take an oath on the Bible.  As their hand is placed on the Bible they say “I swear by almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The question is why?

Jesus said “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) The tense used makes it clear that God’s word is continually being spoken.

There is a great saying – “The Bible is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions.”  We get a sense of that in the Lord’s Prayer.

The Psalms paint some wonderful pictures of the Word of God. The extract from Psalm 119 in our reading today is no exception. The Word of God, we are told, is:

  • Like purifying and cleansing water (v.9)
  • A treasure (vv.14, 72, 127, 162)
  • A companion and a counsellor (v.24)
  • A song (v.54)
  • Like honey (v.103)
  • A light (vv.105, 130) and
  • A heritage (v.111)

What on earth would life be like without these things?

The psalmist goes on to suggest why we should value the Word of God. The reasons all relate to what it does:

  • It brings happiness (vv.1-2). It has been said that “key to happiness is to live in God’s Word and to let his Word live in us.” If we walk according to God’s Word we will be blessed and know happiness.
  • It produces cleansing and purity (vv.9, 11). “The agent the Spirit of God used to regenerate the hearts of all of us who are saved.” We get a sense of this cleansing, and washing in the word in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:25-27)
  • It gives liberty and freedom (v.45). Sin always promises to bring freedom, but it only creates bondage and causes us to become slaves to depravity (2 Peter 2:19). It is the truth of God that brings true and lasting freedom (John 8:32).
  • It provides direction (v.105). The Word of God provides the direction we need, a lamp to out feet and a light for our path. It is like a light shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).
  • It produces understanding (v.130). Our walking and understanding are inseparably linked. In addition to shedding light on our path, the Word of God enlightens our minds (the ‘eyes of our heart’ become enlightened) so we can discern what we ought to do.

Paul said “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Reading the Bible helps us:

  • Become like Jesus, as we are ‘transformed into his likeness’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)
  • Know the presence of God, joy and peace in the midst of life’s storms (Psalm 23:5)
  • Find guidance (Psalm 119:105)
  • Know life in all fullness, health and healing (Proverbs 4:20-22)
  • Be defended against spiritual attack (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Experience God’s power…it can convict us deep in our hearts, challenge us, affirm us, and build us up (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Cleanse our minds (John 15:3)

Living according to God’s word then helps us:

  1. Keep our ways pure
  2. Not to sin
  3. Teach and admonish one another with wisdom. I think that Christian are often very poor at speaking the truth in love because they don’t have the Word of God written on the tablets of their heart and they don’t recognize their own poverty of spirit
  4. Develop an attitude of gratitude in our hearts

We do this by:

  1. Studying it. God’s purpose in giving his Word was to point us to himself. We are, therefore, to seek him through his Word (v. 2), and this seeking is to be done wholeheartedly (vv. 2–10). We are to ‘look’ into his Word (v. 6) and to learn its judgements (v. 7). It really helps if we do this together and here we have several in your church you may have several opportunities to dig deeper into God’s word – perhaps in Housegroups, or nurture Groups. There are also some really great Daily Bible Reading Notes you can buy that aren’t too expensive – and readily available at Christian bookshops.
  2. Obeying it. The duty of obedience is set forth in these verses in several ways: walking in the law of the Lord and in his ways (vv. 1, 3), keeping his testimonies (vv. 2, 129), and taking heed to our ways to make sure they correspond to the teachings of God’s Word (v. 9). We need to encourage one another in this…it isn’t easy, but God gives us strength to prevail and grace and mercy when we fail.
  3. Storing it. We hide it in our hearts – the centre of our being. We get a sense of this in Proverbs 7:1-3: “My son, keep my words and store up my commands within you. Keep my commands and you will live; guard my teachings as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart.
  4. Declaring it (v.13). Studying the Word of God will cause our hearts to burn within us, just as they did with the disciples on the Emmaus road when Jesus explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32) in such a way that we won’t be able to keep it to ourselves. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
  5. Rejoicing over it (vv.14-16).   The rejoicing of verse 14 and the delighting of verse 16 are connected by the meditating of verse 15. As we reflect on what the Word of God is and what it does, we will find the rejoicing and delighting to be inescapable.

Reading the Word of God has an effect and an impact on us. It leads to transformation and it draws us closer to Christ. We are told:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Reading the Word of God is an intentional or purposeful act, just like putting clothes on.   In the first part of the passage from Colossians (3.12-14), Paul uses the metaphor of putting on new clothing to describe the transformation of God’s chosen people. When we make that choice to follow Jesus, we leave behind the rags of our old lives and ‘put on’ the glorious robes of our new lives. It is only when we begin to leave behind our old selfish selves and move forward with Christ’s love in our hearts that we can attain the perfect unity expressed most wonderfully as Christ’s body here on earth, the church.

These signs of a transformed and re-formed believer are the outward ‘clothing’ of a transformed heart, one that is at peace with God, oneself, and others (3.15). We the evidence of that in the use of the gifts of the Spirit and the Fruit of the Spirit. This must form the basis of the missional heart of the church, in which the primary reason for our existence is to worship and glorify God.  And as we give thanks for God’s goodness and grace, we can’t help but express our gratitude in acts of service to others both inside and outside the church in thought, word and deed (3.15-17). We recognise or own poverty of spirit and capture a glimpse of the length and breadth and depth of the love of God.

The message of Christ, that we are justified not by our own efforts but by faith, and saved, not by our works but by God’s grace, is expressed in a heart for mission, rigorous teaching, exuberant worship and heartfelt thanksgiving to God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (3.16-17).

If you want to know more of Jesus, and feel held back and in a dry place – why not ask for prayer ministry?

As together we read the Word of the Lord… let’s remember the Words of Jesus who said “Everyone who hears these words of mine puts them into practice…(Matthew 7:24)

Let’s close with this silent prayer….

Lord Jesus Christ, help us to live according to your Word.  May we be clothed in your truth; with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and over all of these, love.  May your kingdom come, your will be done and your church shine with your light.  Amen

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.