Sunday, 7 May 2017

Fix Your Eyes On Resurrection Glory - Notes on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Paul has spent the bulk of this letter answering the questions the Corinthian Christians have asked him and correcting their dodgy practice after hearing what has been going on. Now he wants to take their eyes off all these secondary issues and onto what really matters.

See "Dead Come Alive" by "Full of Eyes," here.

Verses 1-2: An Appeal In Love.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of their opinions were on the various issues, Paul wants to fix their eyes on the gospel he preached.  He is nervous that their pursuit of all these secondary things, whilst good in themselves, is rendering their understanding of Jesus and their proclamation of him, incoherent. As when Jesus told the parable of the sower, (Matthew 13:22), he said: As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.  When all is said and done, we must be absolutely clear that the Cross of Jesus is the foundation of our identity (who we are now) and the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our hope (where we are going).

Verses 3-4: The Big Picture
The beginnings of the first Christian creed.  Paul isn't giving them his own opinions, he is reminding them of the big picture of history, which is not only that the death and resurrection had happened, but that it was predicted and prophesied hundreds, even thousands of years before it happened. The good news of the gospel blesses us, but it does not serve us, we serve the gospel.  Ask not how the gospel is relevant to your life and rather ask how you can make your life relevant to the gospel, for, in the end, it's all that matters.

Verses 5-8: Appearances Evoking Faith
Paul cites a number of different occasions where Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection.  The list is neither chronological nor exhaustive, so what is Paul's editing principle here? Probably the best clue is in 1 Cor 15:12. It would appear some in the church no longer believe the resurrection. So he cites a list of instances where those who did not believe were lovingly confronted and brought / restored to faith by Jesus himself:
  • Peter (Cephas): Matthew 16:23, 26:69-75 John 21:15-19
  • The Disciples / Apostles: Mark 16:9-14
  • The 500+ crowd: Matthew 28:17
  • James, Jesus' brother - tradition say that did not believe his brother to be the Messiah until after the resurrection, but then became one of the pillars of the fledgling Jerusalem church: Acts 15:13, Galatians 2:9
  • Paul: Acts 9.
Verses 9-11: Grace Slays Self Importance and Cultivates Obedience.
Just as we did not choose the time and place of our physical birth, neither did we pick and choose the time of our spiritual birth.  Paul was out to destroy God's beloved bride - the church, yet God not only had mercy on him but also turned him into (arguably) the most eloquent presenter of the gospel (after Jesus) the world has ever seen.  That kind of mercy can only cultivate obedience. There is no room for complacency or triumphalism.

Questions:
  • Are you so busy pursuing the "good things of life" that your understanding of and witness to the gospel is becoming incoherent?
  • Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?  If so, why doesn't it shape your life priorities as much as it should?  What are the excuses you are making?
  • Is your expectation in life that the gospel serves us, or that we serve the gospel as a response to grace?
  • If the grace of God is really that good, why do we get so puffed up, and why are we so sluggish to obey God's commands?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Some Notes and Questions from Sam Alberry’s Sermon 12 February 2017

You can find Sam’s sermon along with some of the Q and A, here.

Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus is the person in whom all of God’s promises to humanity are fulfilled. Repentance is a total turn around in direction – like a car going the wrong way down the motorway will eventually hit a wall of other vehicles unless it turns round, we must repent before we are hit by the juggernaut of God’s kingdom purpose.

Question: What does repentance look like in a life?  In your life?

Matthew 15:19-20 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Our culture tells us we are lost and that we need to look inside our hearts to find the real authentic us and that once found, we must celebrate and express that. Jesus says the opposite; that looking at our hearts will only confuse and delude us because our hearts are corrupted.

Question: How much time do you spend listening to other voices (including your own) defining you? How much do you listen to what Jesus says about you? Is there anything that needs to change?

Matthew 19:3-6 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
19:10-12 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Jesus avoids being trapped by the Pharisees by not answering their question directly, but by looking at God’s original intention for marriage – that it be one man and one woman in an exclusive lifelong union. This is a high calling, one that leaves the disciples gobsmacked. All of us are skewed (not straight) in our sexuality, all of us are broken. No one has sexual desires that are 100% godly all the time. All of us need Christ’s love and power to reconcile and restore us. If we cannot embrace Christ’s teaching on marriage, then the only legitimate pathway is celibacy – which is also a high calling. There can be many and varied reasons why people might be eunuchs (live celibately). In marriage we see the shape of the gospel (Christ and his Church). In celibacy, we see the sufficiency of the gospel (Christ and his family of the church are enough for me).

Question: What does this teaching provoke in you? Why is Jesus so black and white about this? What does he want us to see? What implications does it have for you and your relationships? How can we support each other in this?

Mark 8:34-35 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

The only time Jesus uses “self” before any word is in “self-denial.” The world says hold on to all you have for as long as you can. Jesus says lose your life to me – the one you were made for - and you will become more you than you ever realised you could be.

Question: Why is self-denial so hard? Does it feel like God is “crucifying you” over anything in your life at the moment as you learn to follow him wholeheartedly? If not, why not? Are you really counting the cost of being a disciple? Do you believe that in losing yourself to Jesus, you become the real you?

Mark 10:28-30 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.

The hardest ties to leave behind are relational, but Jesus makes the a promise that he expects his people to deliver on his behalf, namely that those who renounce their old life and its relational ties to follow him will be richly rewarded on a relational level by being welcomed into a family that is so good, it far outweighs both the good you thought you had in your old life and the persecution you now get for following Jesus. Our culture confuses sex and intimacy. You can live without sex, but you cannot live without intimacy (deep friendship or kinship). If the church is not a place of deep intimacy / fellowship then it cannot be surprised when people fall into bad relationships of all kinds, but especially sexual ones.

Question: Have you experienced the depth of relationship in church life that Jesus promises here since you became a Christian? If not, why not? (Be honest, not accusatory.) How can you be obedient to Jesus and fulfil his promise to others of deep, intimate friendship / kinship?

John 6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

This is a weird metaphor in a culture that has lots of different staples – potato, rice etc, but Jesus wants to be our daily bread, our sustenance for the journey of life. In our culture of romantic love – we often put expectations on others to complete us in ways they were never meant to fulfil. That is idolatry – only Jesus can truly satisfy and sustain us.

Question: Do you look to Jesus as your soul/sole source of strength, or do you unfairly put a burden of expectation on others they were never designed to fulfil?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Honour The Body of Christ: Notes on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Disclaimer: These are the notes I wrote to help me preach, but they are not necessarily representative of the content that was heard, for that, you need to go here.

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Remember way back in the summer when we looked at chapter 7? We learned that the Corinthian church had written to Paul about a number of matters asking for his wisdom on them. However, what we are looking at today is not that. Earlier in the letter we read that Paul had received a report from “Chloe’s Household” and shocked and appalled about how things have deteriorated, Paul writes back answering those original questions and also correcting them on the stuff that has gone a bit mad according to Chloe and friends!

Where we are now in Chapters 11-14, Paul is primarily addressing issues around their collective acts of worship – In his letter, he uses the phrase “when you come together…” to pass comment on what has usually gone awry when they meet as a church. This section isn’t primarily about personal lifestyle choices of individual Christians.

Because our modern educational formation leaves us a bit baffled when it comes to thinking about communion, I want to make two comments to help contextualise what we are about to read.



Firstly – that ritual meals are the stuff of life and you and I do them all the time: Birthdays, Weddings, Anniversaries, Christmas, Sunday Roasts, Farewell Celebrations, Office Parties, New Year celebrations, like the one on the screen behind me, are all examples of ritual meals. For example at a birthday people gather to celebrate the birthday boy or girl. As it is their celebration, they decide what food and drink is consumed and what entertainment is had, and in the midst of the celebration a special type of ritual food is brought out called birthday cake, the candles are lit, then we all sing the special ritual song “Happy Birthday to you…” the candles are blown out, wishes are made and in that moment we are celebrating all that our friendship with the birthday boy / girl means and reaffirming our friendship with them.

Ritual meals mark moments in our lives, they bring meaningful shape to the contours of our lives. They help us to make sense of and honour the stories of our lives as they mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. They remind us “what time it is.” In a ritual meal you come together, both to celebrate and reaffirm what you love. You probably don’t remember most of the meals you had in 2016, but I bet you can remember many, if not most of the ritual ones – the birthdays, weddings and leaving dos you attended. Ritual meals mark themselves on our memory, in a way the everyday meals do not.

Communion is not some weird hocus-pocus event, it is the ritual family meal where Christians gather together by the Spirit to be reminded “what time it is,” what season of history we are in and what, the stories of our lives have become. It is a celebration of all that God is for us in Jesus Christ and restating / reaffirmation to ourselves our love for and allegiance to that God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Secondly, to contextualise… God has always enjoyed meals with his people and in the Bible we see them take on a pattern, there is the gathering, the offering, the shared meal and the ritual remembrance.



In the Old Testament, the Israelites would gather to the Presence of God – the Shekinah Glory Cloud, which was over the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, they would take the tithe (a 10% share) of their harvest with them, give some to the Levites (the priests) in an offering. Then use the rest to throw the largest bring and share party meal the world of the time had ever seen, where all those who united their hearts to the Lord whether they were rich or poor, Jew or not, could come and be welcomed in and they would all rejoice together in awe as they feasted in the temple, in the Presence of the LORD. The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the orphans and wanderers found a home, the scriptures read, songs sung and in the midst of the feasting and celebration, ritual animal sacrifices were performed that reminded them who God is and who they were as his people. Those sacrifices reminded them of how God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and carried them to a new life in a good land and pointed forwards to the coming of Messiah. This was not their own personally preferred past time, this was their duty and their joy as God’s chosen people, for in remembering what God had done for them, they were to be a global witness to the nations around them that God would one day send the Messiah who would offer rescue to the whole world, from the slavery of our rebellion against him and open up the way to friendship with God again.

Fast Forward to the New Testament, we see the same pattern as the Old Testament, but it is a new context. The Presence of God – the glory of God is no longer found above a stone temple, but in groups of people who have been made alive by the Spirit of God and when they gather together they also bring their offerings and lay them at the Apostles feet who would then, like the Levites, use the offering for the work of the church, the care of the poor, and for feasting and celebrating together before God. And in the midst of that celebration, as they ate together in their homes with glad and sincere hearts, they would perform the ritual remembrance of communion. They would remind themselves that they were once dead in sin, cut off from the goodness of God with no hope and no right to any share in any of it, but that God in his mercy, through the death and resurrection of Jesus had given them new life and new hope, and that this new life and hope was not just to be a waiting witness to the world, but was to bring about the transformation of the world, in order to ready it for Jesus’ return.

I say these things so that as we now read 1 Cor 11, you can understand and feel just how dysfunctional these Corinthian Christians had become.

The church hasn’t asked him any questions about communion. Paul doesn’t wait to be invited to comment, he just weighs in because Chloe’s report left him shocked and appalled. One wonders if his readers took offence at this, but that might be more of a reflection on my 21st century cultural conditioning that I see offense everywhere, rather than there being any actual offense.



The divisions mentioned here are not the same as the ones mentioned back in the earlier part of the letter, we aren’t talking about them dividing over which apostle they preferred to align themselves. Nor are we now talking about meat offered to idols, although as we will see, I think that is in the background here. Rather we are talking about the strong dominating and humiliating the weak.

The Strong were those in the church who were rich, well connected to the corridors of power and influence. They were the charismatic (with a small c) ones in the church, the extraverts, the ones whom in that horrible battle known as the survival of the fittest had gained victory as they had all the characteristics that were best adapted to getting on top, locking themselves in there and enjoying all the prizes of this life to the exclusion of others.

The Weak were those in the church who were poor, uneducated, had no access to the corridors of power and influence. They often just struggled to hold life together.

In preaching the good news of Jesus to the Corinthians, Paul declared the breaking down of the kinds of social and physical walls that divided people like this into the strong and the weak, the privileged and the underprivileged, telling them they were all one together in Christ Jesus.

But with Paul now long gone, some of that old world division was creeping back into the church. The rich were now enjoying more privileges than the poor, barriers were starting to be re-erected and this heretical tendency was most evident at their communion meals. The very moment where their unity should have been most obviously on display had become a moment of disastrous disunity.

No doubt many of the rich resigned themselves to this regression. They may even have said to themselves that Jesus had told them that they would always have the poor with them, twisting a godly utterance in order to justify a deeply ungodly pattern of behaviour.
Paul is deeply sarcastic about this “Of course, you must have divisions amongst you so that those who are truly spiritual, truly rich, truly favoured by God might be vindicated in that favour. How could I forget, (Paul might have gone on that sarcastic vein) that God favours the rich, that God is impressed by your prosperity and thinks that he can do more through you because of your money, rather than because of your obedience, because we all know that it’s their money that always makes rich people more obedient than the poor, how dumb am I?!

So what exactly was going on in their public worship, and more specifically their communion meals?

Before we all demonise the rich for reconstructing walls that enforced their own privileged status, we would do well to remember that they were probably just reverting to the standard cultural assumptions of their day. Much like the rich in modern democracies lock the poor out of running for power by making the process of getting elected so exorbitantly expensive that no poor person can afford to run for office. It’s one of those laws of a fallen world; the rich, when left to their own devices will always start to throw their weight around whether deliberately or unwittingly – disenfranchising the poor in the process.



Our best guess, based on what Paul wrote and what we know of the customs of the time, is that they began to mirror the standard cultural practice of the ritual meals of the day which was that someone rich would lay on a meal, gathering all their rich friends into the dining room known as the “triclinium.” There they would gorge themselves on the finest of the food and wines, do some religious ritual to some idol, and once they had had their fill, whatever was left would be taken out to the poor who were waiting in a small courtyard-like place known as the atrium. The rich “cared” for the poor by giving them their scraps and leftovers. This was how the poor were “cared” for in a society that had no benefits system. Left to fight over that which the rich were too sick or too drunk to finish.

Have this picture in your mind as we read on…



So picture the scene if you will. The rich who have servants to do all their hard work, the rich who can arrange their diaries as their desires allow, the rich who have no worries about where the next meal is coming from, the rich who probably aren’t all that hungry, arrive on time to the worship service, participate without a care and when the time comes to share the love feast of communion as it was known, they are called into a special room and given all the privileges of fine dining.

Not so for the poor, who are scraping a living, the poor who can’t arrange their diaries however they like and who have to work all the hours that their masters and mistresses desire because if they don’t they get beaten to within an inch of their life, having no right to plea for justice from the law courts for such abuse, the poor, who turn up to the worship of God as soon as they can, but sometimes that just isn’t soon enough, and when they get there, they haven’t eaten all day and they are told to wait in the courtyard until the rich brothers and sisters have finished their food.

When you add to this the fact that Paul was probably writing at a time of global food shortage which was sending the price of basic food sky rocketing and throwing many into starvation, you can quickly see why Paul is so outraged as he writes.

The rich are getting drunk and fat whilst the poor are going hungry and wasting away, right next to each other.

The rich had hijacked God’s family meal and turned it from something that was to focus on Christ and be a blessing to all his people, to being something that focussed on the pleasures of the rich and the strong and humiliated the weak.

Paul is relatively generous in his writing “Shall I commend you in this? No I will not!” I would imagine, he was fuming with righteous indignation as he was writing. Is this really what God’s family meal had sunk to?



Paul wasn’t present at the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples, but he takes so seriously the traditions that were passed on to him by those first disciples who are now apostles, that it is as if the Lord himself had given the instructions to Paul personally. What Paul taught the Corinthian church about communion when he was with them was therefore not open to their improvised interpretations based on the cultural sensibilities, prejudices, conveniences and foibles of the society around them. They, like Paul were to be faithful to the traditions with which they had been entrusted by the Lord, through his faithful servants.

Communion is Jesus’ meal, not ours to reinterpret how we like. It is his invitation, his house, his entry criteria, his table, his settings, his food, his drink, his words, his ceremony, his remembrance and his resurrection power flowing through the heart of it all. The best of Roman Catholicism understands this so much better than us Protestant Charismatics.

Here is the paradox, Jesus is both the host of the meal and the food at the centre of it and Paul now restates the heart of the ritual remembrance that should have taken place in the midst of their eating together.

The night Jesus was betrayed, he took that famously termed “last supper” which was a Passover meal that God’s people had been celebrating now for nearly two thousand years as they had waited for their promised Messiah, and transformed them into something new. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God was pulling human history into a whole new era: from night to day, from mourning to dancing, from law to spirit, from death to life and from creation to renewed creation in order to prepare everything for his return at the end of history.
For at the cross, Jesus offered up his body in perfect obedience to death. His body, conceived inside Mary the virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, was one that knew no sin. He had never given his body over to doing anything other than the will of the Father in Heaven. He had not used his eyes and ears to behold and believe lies, no matter how delicious they first appeared. He had not used his hands, feet and mouth to grasp for things he had no right to take for himself. He had always fixed his mind, heart and soul, in love, on doing his Father’s will every second of every minute, every minute of every hour, every hour of every day, for every day of his life.

And as he offered his body up in righteous obedience on the cross, drawing into himself the curse of all our sin, shame and bondage to darkness and with it the punishment that we so rightly deserved; the life of God was broken open. Father, Son and Holy Spirit who had been united in love for all eternity, were separated from each other. The life of God was broken open so that now through the power of resurrection, we might be added in.

So when Jesus’ disciples took that bread into themselves, they were to remember him and his body offered up in righteous obedience, but not only that, for in eating the bread, they were reminded that his righteousness was now given to them, his obedience was credited to them and that his mission was now their mission. And as we take the bread, 2000 years later, nothing has changed. We remind our hearts that Christ’s righteousness is now our righteousness, that his obedience is now our obedience, his mission is now our mission. That his status before the Father is now our status before the Father and that we can come before God in love, free from condemnation.

And as bread gives strength to our physical bodies to labour in life’s work, so Christ’s righteousness given to us, strengthens our souls that we might more and more be conformed to the likeness of Jesus – to become what God has already declared over us in hope: beloved and obedient children.



Movement is life and because blood moves all over your body, it’s the stuff of life. Humans cannot live without blood running through the body.

Blood provides the energy that all our body parts need to live and if we lose it, we die.

In the Bible, blood poured out signifies life lost and judgment rendered. If you spilled the blood of another in murder, then the law required that your guilty life had to be taken and your blood spilled to atone for your crime and restore the peace of the community and the fruitfulness of the land. Righteous judgements restore peace, prosperity and flourishing. Unrighteous judgements provoke instability and chaos and render the land barren.

Christ had no guilt, he was perfect, but he had the guilt of the whole world, including ours, laid upon him and then the righteous wrath and judgement of God; Father, Son and Spirit, was poured out on the Son for our rebellion against them. As the wrath came down, the blood poured out. It dripped out as he was flogged and beaten, and gushed out when his side was pierced. And because of his eternal, immortal perfection, he was able to absorb and soak up that wrath completely. The righteous judgements of God for sin were completely satisfied.

This is massive, for it means that when Christ rose from the dead, not only could we be acquitted of our guilt, but by the power of the spirit, the lifeblood of Christ now flows to us by the Spirit, his life is now our life, his power is now our power, his victory is now our victory.
Just as wine is a victory drink that we drink when the work is done and it brings joy and laughter to our bodies, so too, the blood of Christ, the life of Christ given to us is our reminder that Jesus’s work is done, judgement for sin is over, all the wrath of God for our rebellion is spent. Satan is powerless, death is powerless, sin is powerless, this present world is powerless, for God’s victory in Christ over them is total and incontestable. In the bread we receive the righteousness of God; in the wine we receive the pleasure and life of God as through the Spirit he now courses through our souls leading us to cry Abba! Father!

By regularly taking bread and wine in communion, we remind ourselves and the watching world that the central fact of history is not the fake, or for that matter true, news that sloshes around on social media but the death and resurrection of Christ and we participate in that fact, becoming united to it. We remind ourselves and the world that the only thing that matters, for all of us, is what happened on a small mountain outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago and that this event and our response to it, is what determines the destiny of all people everywhere who have ever lived and will ever live until Jesus returns to wrap up history.

But this meal is not a free for all. It is a life or death meal because it is a meal centred on love and allegiance to Christ.



The main point of this section is not so much about counting up and confessing our sins. That is important, but it comes second to us examining our allegiances. You may not have committed any “big sins” this week, but your heart, like the Pharisees, could be a million miles away from God. Equally, you could have had an awful week of slipping up into old ways, but if you confess and renounce those things from the heart then you are in the right place to come and eat and drink with Jesus. Christ’s invitation to the communion table is not based on our performance, but his. Our duty is to examine our allegiances confess our need of Christ and give our hearts to him again in love.

My guess from reading around is that some of the rich Christians at Corinth were participating in idol feasts either, because they wanted to hedge their bets and cover all their bases in the spiritual realms, or because they wanted to foster their business interests and friendships with those who worshiped those idols and so participating in the odd idol feast day here and there kept the friendships warm, the money rolling in. The problem was that it led to a compromised allegiance that was ripping the church apart.

Now, I am pretty confident that most of us here are not sneaking off to other religious temples around the area to make offerings to other gods or curry favour there for the sake of our business interests, but as my wife reminded me when she proof read this, religious interest is on the rise like never before, I should not assume anything. Are you visiting idol temples? There are more and more of them around. And even if you aren’t, are you getting involved with practices that at a very surface level are innocuous enough, but behind them have a power that is not rooted in the Spirit of God? Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, superstitions like not walking under ladders, Freemasonary, Ouija boards, alternative medicine, acupuncture etc. These things can have very legitimate applications in life, but if we are not discerning and careful they can lead us down roads to idolatry down which we never intended to travel.

And just because most of us don’t really do any of that stuff, doesn’t mean that we can let ourselves off the hook. Our culture idolises the fantasy called the free, self-defined individual. We can so easily give our souls and bodies to those things that bolster the delusions we want to believe about ourselves and about our circle of family and friends. We give our time, energy and thought to getting, amongst other things, money, sex, status, technology, knowledge and power because in our collective consciousness, we think that it is our right to have those things and to have them serve our sense of destiny yet we end up in bondage to them and we forget that our primary energy, time and thought is to be devoted to the duty and service of Christ.

Paul called out the Corinthians, and I am calling us out today, not so much to an assessment of our performance although that is important, but to an assessment of our allegiance. Who is your primary allegiance in life to? When you eat bread and drink wine, are you hedging you bets or are you giving yourself heart and soul to the one who gave his heart and soul, his body and his blood for you.
Christ wants his love reciprocated, not scorned. He wants us present at his table, not just in body but in heart also, just as he is present in body and heart.

This is not a take it or leave it kind of thing, the consequences of doing this flippantly are dire, lets read on…


Judgement is not the root of all evil, as many in our culture would have it. It is neither good nor bad. However, good judgement is a source of life. If we are to reign with Christ, then we are to grow in maturity. We grow in maturity when we grow in the exercise of good judgment - discerning good and evil. If we want to live a life that makes no judgments about anything, then we will remain infantile in our thinking and ironically, it won’t be long before we see our world collapse in tornado of paranoia and neurosis as we end up judging everyone and feeling judged by everyone. We can’t help but pass judgement. We must ensure our judgements are good and true.

If we have a compromised allegiance to the Lord, if we are spiritual adulterers, claiming allegiance to the Lord, but going off and seeking out other things to take his place in our affections, then the bread and wine which should work life and health in us, will instead work death in us, for the Lord is a jealous God, eager to protect and guard those who are united to him. His love will burn up those parts of our hearts that are given to others rather than to him. That is why many at Corinth were weak and sick and some had died. Like the Israelites who gave themselves to the golden calf in the wilderness, met with their death. So now the Corinthians who played fast and loose with their allegiance to Christ, popping off on the sly to feast at the tables of other gods, were reaping terrible consequences at communion, and becoming unfruitful in their unfaithfulness.

These people don’t lose their salvation necessarily, Paul says that those who are unfaithful get “disciplined” not dammed. Nevertheless, they pay a high price for what is at best a lack of good judgement or at worst a gross arrogance before God.

But if we have already confessed and renounced our sin, if we have already bound ourselves to the Lord in love, then the bread and wine work as they do in any normal situation to give life and vitality to us in body and soul, they work for our fruitfulness in the service of God and for our victory in the mission of God.

The success of our mission statement as a church and the legacy of our lives as a whole are not founded in our technique and performance for God, but on our allegiance and obedience to God.


So, in summary, remember whose meal this is, who is the host and who is the guest, remember the entry criteria and how we should come, if we do this communion will be a source of life and joy to us not misery, sickness and death.


Come, let us eat, drink and offer ourselves up in devotion to the Lord as living sacrifices. Christ offered himself up in sacrifice to God for us that he might unite us to God making us holy and beautiful like he is holy and beautiful, now calls us to do the same. We must be clear about this. Jesus suffered the wrath of God so that we didn’t have to, but he didn’t die that we don’t have to, he died so that we might follow him to death and through death out to resurrection on the other side.

Christ offered up his perfect, righteous and holy life in sacrifice for the world, so that we who have now been made perfect and righteous in Christ might now leave our self-absorbed, sin laden lives behind, follow Christ’s lead and offer ourselves up as living sacrifices for the life of the world, as he did. (Romans 12:1-3) Christ’s laying his life down in obedient sacrifice opened the way for us to live with God. Our sacrifices, obediently laying ourselves down for God, for one another and for the world, fill the new creation with souls for God and prepare the world for his return. What he alone by sacrifice could begin, Christ has commanded his Spirit filled church, by sacrifice to complete (Matt. 28:19-20).

So will you come now to Christ’s table? He calls us to unite and reunite our heart to his in love.

He calls us to be honest about our allegiances, to confess and turn away from those things, people or situations, which are either tempting us or causing us to commit spiritual adultery.

He calls us to remember, to honour and to take great joy in his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross made in love to God the father for us.

He reminds us that this is his meal table, not ours. We don’t approach it how we like in our introspective little bubble. We come as God’s gathered people to remember and celebrate Christ together and to remember that by his mercy we are one body together in him born anew into a living hope that begins now and lasts for ever. We wait for one another, ensuring as far as we can that we help each other to all be ready spiritually and physically to eat and drink with Jesus.

So prepare your hearts, prepare each others’ hearts. Let us eat and drink with our eyes open. Take things in, these are the people, along with many millions across the world and down history to whom you are united in God for eternity.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Sermon Notes: Making Room for God... by Obedience

Due to time, I haven't prepared the usual script, hopefully the bullet points make enough sense..

A Modern Parable
  • Tommy the world famous tight rope walker. He did amazing stunts.
  • Tommy had fallen off in practices and in performances years ago, but not recently.
  • One day, the unthinkable happened… but the curious thing was that he enjoyed it.
  • He started to do it for the paying crowds
  • But the crowds weren’t fools, word got out and they stopped coming to see the show, they didn’t want to pay to see for something they could do.
  • Tommy’s act became financially unviable, and folded
  • He signed on the dole.
  • When Tommy was different, it got the world’s attention, when he was just like them, they lost interest.
  • How many of us are like Tommy in our Christian lives? Never tried to live differently, or used to try, but don’t any more.
  • Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

  • Today, I felt compelled to speak about making room for God by obedience
  • What does the title provoke in you? Excitement? Cynicism? Resentment? Fear? Apathy? Guilt?
  • Paul, at the beginning of his letter to the Romans says that his whole life mission is to bring the Gentiles into the “obedience of faith for the sake of his name”
  • At the end of the same letter, he says: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed”
  • In the Great Commission, (Matt 28), Jesus told his followers to teach not just for understanding, but for obedience.
  • As I speak, my aim is not just to help you understand, but obey
  • As you listen, your aim should not just be understanding, but obedience.
  • Anything less and we are fooling around and there’s nothing for the world to see.
  • People don’t need to see their banal little lives reflected back at them when they look at Christians, they want to see something worth living and dying for.
  • If you have a bible in any kind of format, please turn to John 14:23 

  • Making room for God is not like making room for your dog on the sofa, it’s making room for a King of the universe.
  • Of course we never mean it like that, but how often does our making room for God feel like giving him the leftovers of our time or our emotional energy if we have any rather than finding out what the king requires of us?
  • This verse is stunning because God is willing to stoop to our level.
  • One of Jesus’ disciples asks a question.
  • With a verse like this you would expect a question like: what are the benefits of being a Christian? What are the terms and conditions of discipleship?
  • Previous verse says: Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”
  • Judas is a bit confused Jesus is going and they can’t follow, but then he says he is coming back but when he comes back, he will not be seen by the world but will be seen by them so is he coming back wearing a hoodie or an invisibility cloak?
  • Jesus is talking about returning not in bodily form, but through the Holy Spirit who is God and who dwells in the hearts of all those who humble themselves to receive him.
  • In a mystery that only God will truly understand heart to heart, soul to soul, life to life.

  • Much has been penned by many about love languages in recent years. Learning how to give and receive love is key to harmonious relationships.
  • Fundamentally, we show love to God by obedience, everything we do should flow from that motivation as a response to his great kindness to us.
  • The call to all. If anyone
  • Loves me “agape” is used here - deep sacrificial love.
  • The love God shows to us is the love he desires to see us show to him… He wants his love to be reciprocated – like for like.  Tension and difficulty comes when love is not reciprocated to the same level in the other.
  • High school crush analogy - unrequited love.
  • Jesus has loved the world to death, through death and out the other side to new and eternal life and by the Spirit, he wants to cultivate that same kind of love in his people where we say I die to myself, my agenda, my dreams and plans and move by the power of God into a new kind of life – God’s eternal life where God’s ambitions, dreams and plans become my own.
  • Hebrew 5:7-8: During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. Christ, by his obedience
  • No disciple is greater than his master, if Jesus had to do it, then those who call themselves Christians must follow in his footsteps.
  • Christ’s obedience to the Father opened up the gates of Heaven for all to enter in. No one but he could do that.
  • But God in his wisdom has decreed that it is by our obedience to Christ and the power of the Spirit that brings people through those open gates.
  • You are here today, because someone was obedient to Jesus on your behalf, before you realised it.
  • Those who love Jesus sacrificially will obey his commands, because they have a new nature, appetite and power for obedience put in there by the Holy Spirit.
  • They will walk the tightrope. They won’t do it perfectly, that’s why God’s mercy and patience is so great, but they will do it increasingly through the seasons of life.
What does it mean to keep Jesus’ words?
  • Words are living things, that my sound strange, but they have the power to multiply themselves.
  • Words both good and bad get passed from one person to another, if the messages they bring take root, then eventually, they will get passed on to another. Words become scripts that get passed from generation to generation in families and societies for better or worse.
  • We enact the words and the scripts that are passed on to us by our family and by our culture
  • When Jesus told his disciples to keep his word, he didn’t mean in a jar in a cupboard, he meant out in the open. His words are living and active
  • We can treat God’s words like a vacuum cleaner: most of the time it is hidden away under the stairs, but is brought out when we’ve made a mess of things.
  • Jesus didn’t only mean for his words to be used as part of our crisis management, he meant for them to change the world.
  • It’s so easy to fall into negative and passive modes of obedience.  Judging our spiritual progress by the sins we are not committing
  • No good human relationship functions like this, but we seem to think that God will be ok with it.
  • Jesus seeks an active and positive obedience the kind that says “Master, what do you want from me today”
  • Like the way that not going to the gym for six months leaves us sluggish and self-loathing, we often lack spiritual vitality, not because life is hard, but because have given up doing the things that give us spiritual life – namely obedience to what God says.
  • In another story Jesus told, he talked about how the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches can be like weeds that choke the life out of the words God plants in us.
  • The cares of this life are all the good things of life that we need, but which we come to obsess over.  We take our eyes off Jesus and put them on these things
  • The deceitfulness of wealth is not just rampant materialism, it’s the belief that money can give you the life that you need.
  • Most of us in here aren’t rampant materialists, but we can be taken captive by thinking that good money management is the key to a successful life. Money management is important, but faithfulness to Jesus is more-so.
  • Jesus says seek first to do as I say and I will ensure you have everything you need.


  • Jesus isn’t Lord Sugar. He’s not standing there with arms folded waiting to be impressed and cajoled into liking us.
  • This isn’t a job interview it is an invitation
  • At the cross, Jesus has invited us into his life and he desires that we invite him into ours.
  • He doesn’t care if our lives are worthy or perfect enough.
  • He has all the resources we have none,
  • Jesus didn't die so we could live like Christians on Sunday and atheists on Monday
  • He isn't worried about what is out of your control, only what is in it.
  • He’s isn’t bothered by our perfection or lack of it.
  • Some of us need to stop whinging about what Church isn’t or Christians aren’t and get on with what God has asked of us.
  • Stop using other people’s faults as an excuse for our own laziness / apathy / disobedience.
  • Some of us need to move from negative and passive forms of obedience to positive and active ones.
  • Some of us need to make room for God in more than just the nooks and crannies of our lives, but give him access to the master bedroom as it were.
  • Some of us haven’t felt alive in God for a while, for the simple reason that we haven’t pursued the vitality of obedience.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sermon Notes: Praying is Reigning

I want to begin this sermon by asking you two questions.

What is the good life? And how do we get it?  What, in your opinion, is the good life, and how are you going about getting it?

The reason we need to answer these first is that our answers to these questions fundamentally shape and fill our attitude to life and therefore to prayer.

Whether we realise it or not, we are orientating our hearts, our energy, our time, our daily routines, our talents, our money and even our prayers around getting whatever we think the good life is.

If we think that the good life is thrills, like the guy behind me or a nice house, good job, a photogenic family, good schools for our kids, plenty of leisure time, and no stress, illness or tragedy, then we will pray for and put our energies into those things.

We have often said, if you want to know what a person really believes and is living for, don’t listen to what they say they believe, look at their bank statement.

The same is true of prayer – if you want to know what someone thinks the good life is don’t listen to what they say – look at their prayer life.

Think about your praying or perhaps your lack of prayer over the last couple of months, what does it tell you about your priorities?

Christians often say that Jesus came to give us life and life in all its fullness and yes, Jesus did say that in John 10:10, but he meant something very different to what we think he is saying.

In bringing us the full life, he turned all our assumptions about the good life on their heads.

You see, the context of that passage is Jesus talking about how he is the good shepherd and how we are his sheep. Now, think about that for a moment, what is the destiny of a sheep? It’s to be prepared for the dinner table. The destiny of sheep is not to live for themselves, but to serve the agenda of the shepherd.

Our natural instinct is that the good life is get, get, get for ourselves and our loved ones and especially in liberal democracies like ours, we all feel, myself included, especially entitled to have everyone serve our ambitions.

But Jesus says, the good life is give, give, give. He said in Matthew 16 that anyone who wants to keep his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will gain it and more back.

Paul picks up the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 when he said that Jesus: died for all, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

How could we ever, possibly have this attitude? The only way a self-giving life like that becomes desirable, let alone possible, is because Jesus has already given us everything he could possibly give us. The shepherd has already laid his life down for the sheep.

Romans 12:1 says that in view of this incredible kindness from God, that we are to be living sacrifices, not grabbing and getting, but offering ourselves up to God for whatever it is he would wish from us.

The relief in al that is that Jesus is not a God who is looking for minions, he is a God who is looking for those who will become like him, filled to the brim by the Spirit like he is, and overflowing with love for the Father and for the world.

A love that expresses itself most clearly in self-sacrifice.

If we are prayerless in our daily lives, or we only call on God when we want something for ourselves, our family or our friends, then what evidence is there, that we have been raised to a whole new kind of life in Christ.

At best, we haven’t experienced very deeply what Christ died to give us, at worst our confession of Christ is a lie and we are deluding ourselves.

It’s when our definition of the good life starts transforming into the same as Jesus’ that prayers, and our spirits, start to come alive.

So what is prayer? At its simplest definition, it’s talking to God.

The thing about simple definitions is that they are at the same time, both helpful and misleading. It’s helpful because it’s true, when we pray, we talk to God, and he talks to us, supremely and authoritatively through the Bible, but not exclusively so.

However, the definition is misleading because we talk in different ways to different people depending on our relationship to them. I talk one way to Elli my wife. I will talk a very different way to Evie my 7 month old daughter. I will talk a different way again to my father, to my colleagues or to strangers.

This doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just means that the different relationships in my life take different forms of conversation and routine. Elli will not thank me if I start talking to her as I talk to Evie.

Jesus is not my wife, my child or my mate, so I don’t talk to him in any of those ways. I address him as the Lord of the universe with worship, awe, reverence, gratitude and honour for who he is and what he has done, but also with simplicity and confidence because whilst he is the ruler of all things, he is also my older brother in family of God and has given me access to the heart of God the Father.

Secondly, the Bible speaks of Christians reigning with Christ, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean sitting on a throne perched in the clouds and staring into the middle distance.

Reigning with Christ looks like the picture behind me – the Council of Elrond from the Lord of the Rings. (See here, part 1 and part 2.)

Just like Elrond in the Lord of the Rings, God has his council. In Psalm 82 we read: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.

In Psalm 89, we read: who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?

God ruled over the world of the Old Testament through angels and supremely through an enigmatic figure known as the Angel of the LORD. It was angels who would go to and fro across the earth and then come to council and talk to the Lord about what they had seen and he would give them missions to fulfil. For examples of this, see Job chapter 1 or Micaiah’s vision in 1 Kings 22.

But when Christ ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of his Father, the work of the angels was over and in Revelation 4 we see them laying down their crowns of authority, symbolic of the great hand over, when the church would, as it were, pick up the baton and carry on where they left off.

For angelic rule was only ever a temporary measure.

God’s intention was always that men and women would be the ones who sat on his council. In Genesis 1 we read that God made humanity to rule creation with him, but when we rebelled against God, we disqualified ourselves not only from fellowship with God but also from our place on his council, ruling creation with him and were placed in spiritual quarantine until Christ came.

But through Christ and his cross, God has not only restored our fellowship with God, but he has restored us to our position of reigning with him on his heavenly council. That is why we read in Revelation 5:9-10: And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you [Lord Jesus Christ] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

The church is a new people, the children of God gathered increasingly out of every nation as the gospel goes forth. Through Christ, we have been gathered into not only into the family of God, but also the heavenly ruling council of God to talk with him, to know his mind, to bring to his attention the things that are going on in his world and asking what he will do about it and what he wants us to do about it.

It’s by this process, spending time in the council of God, in prayer, and the obedience that flows from it, that we grow in maturity and live lives that are useful and pleasing to the master and see the world filled with the transforming love of God.

Jesus talks about this participation in the divine council another way, he says in John 15: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

Through Christ, God has brought us into every aspect of his heart and his life and he wants us to join him in making the plans he has for the world a reality.

Our reigning with Christ is made meaningful through prayer.

Prayer is the process by which we reign with Christ and grow in Christ.

At this point a clarification is helpful. If you have been around Christians long enough, you may have heard some of us say that we are sons and daughters of the king. But what does it mean to be a prince or princess in this heavenly dynasty?

To be a son or daughter in our culture tends to mean that we sit around whilst our parents run ragged trying to find ways of keeping us entertained and out of trouble or danger, but that is not the way the Bible ever views children of royalty.

Privilege is never the justification for indulgence or passivity. It is always the opportunity for gratitude and service.

In the bible, being a child of a king, means not only taking our place on the heavenly family sofa, but also taking our place on the heavenly council.

And on that council, we have three distinct roles which are inseparably woven together. We are all at the same time, sons (and daughters), subjects and soldiers. If we over or under-emphasise any one of these three roles, we won’t be like Jesus in our praying.

Firstly, princes and princesses are sons and daughters. We have the incredible privilege of being able to draw near to God in prayer.

Being made in his likeness means we can understand and enjoy him in a way that no other creature can.

Being close to him means we can talk to him as our loving father sharing with him all our hopes and fears, our disappointments and successes, and everything that our lives consist of. Jesus said to his disciples in John 20 : “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

But princes and princesses are also subjects in the king's court and servants in his service. They carry the king’s authority and are expected to serve the king and the kingdom in whatever is needed.

So we also come as subjects to be given jobs to do, realms to oversee and responsibilities to discharge, whether that be in the church or in our family lives, our workplaces or whatever and we are to be as faithful and obedient as we can in those places we serve him.

This is why Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 17:10: “when you have done everything you were told to do, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Sons and daughters are also subjects and servants, and we do well to remember that, lest a dark spirit of entitlement starts to overtake us.

Finally, less so historically for princesses than princes, we are called to be soldiers. In days of old, battles were not fought by a professional military who were paid, trained and deployed by the government, but by common people, like you and me and they were led into battle by the king and his sons.

The bible says that our battle is not one fought by physical force with guns and planes or with political manipulation and trade agreements, it is a spiritual battle waged with the spiritual weapons of the bible, prayer, faith and obedience.

Through this spiritual warfare, the children of the king, defend this spiritual kingdom from attack and dismemberment by forces that would love to see it destroyed for ever, and they also enlarge the borders of this kingdom transforming places of darkness, ignorance and evil into places of light, wisdom and purity.

When the disciples returned from what was the first ever mission trip, rejoicing at all that God had done through them – Jesus summed it up saying in Luke 10: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

With great power comes great responsibility. Through Christ, we have a privileged place in the palace as princes and princesses of the king, but that goes hand in hand with having a place of duty on his council as subjects or servants and as soldiers.

Here at Reading Family Church we have a mission statement that says we want to bring the kingdom of God to Reading and beyond. As princes and princesses of the king of Heaven, that mission statement only becomes a reality through the joy and the hard graft of our prayer.

To reign with Christ is to pray.

Now, all that said, here are some practical pointers.

Firstly, whatever else you take away from today remember to be yourself with God. He knows you and me better than we know ourselves, that is supposed to be a liberating truth to help us open up to God, not a scary one to shut us down.

God loves us dearly, and wants to hear what we have to say, so we don’t need pretend with him or think that we have to put on a special voice for him when we pray. We can just talk to him.

Of course, being yourself looks different at different times. Me talking and being myself at the age of 10 looked very different to me talking and being myself now at the age of 38.

At the tender age of 10, I was terrified about the possibility of nuclear war and the hole in the ozone layer, so my prayers included these things.

Being ourselves will change over time, but the principle of honesty, openness and simplicity in praying should never become absent.

Secondly, talk and listen to God, conversations are a two way process so listen to God as he speaks to you from the pages of the Bible. Listen to him for inspiration as you think about the words he has spoken, he may drop a thought into your head or an image. In all my 32 years as a Christian, I have never audibly heard the voice of God, I would imagine there are a few in this room who have down the years. Talk to him about what you think he is saying to you.

Thirdly, seek first the Kingdom. This is taken from something Jesus said in Matthew 6. What Jesus was saying was make the focus of your prayers mission of God. When we put God’s mission first we are honouring God.

The amazing thing about that is that as we make God’s concerns our main concern, he makes our concerns his concern.

As we look out for God’s priorities in prayer, he covers our back providing all we need, although not necessarily all we want.

What is God asking you to do, and encouraging you to trust him for?

Fourthly, faithfulness first, feelings second. If we are honest, sometimes, the reason we don’t pray is that we can’t be bothered or we don’t feel like it.

But feelings are never to be the basis for our deciding whether do anything, let alone whether we pray or not.

If I rang up my boss and said I don’t feel like working today. I’m not coming in. Then my boss would rightly say, well I don’t feel like paying you either, in fact whilst we’re at it, I’m, not sure I feel like employing you either.

Yet, somehow, we often fob our Heavenly Father off with excuses that we would never dare use to the people in our everyday lives.

Of course feelings do matter, but they come in second place to faithfulness. When we put faithfulness above feelings, we are not being hypocrites. We are doing the right thing and honouring the God who loves us and serving the world he loves.

As we exercise faithfulness in prayer, there are some things we pray about because we care about them, other things we pray about because God tells us to, but the curious thing about that is that with time, I have found as I have prayed, is that I start to care about the things I pray about.

The reason we pray is not just because it changes situations, it’s because it changes us.

Fifthly, quantity, quality and content do matter. There is a tension here. We are to be ourselves with God and come to him honestly and openly, but God wants to grow us in the practice of prayer, he uses prayer to grow us to maturity. So as we grow in our relationship to God our prayer and our praying will change over time.

Content does matter, if it didn’t, Jesus would never have taught his disciples to pray and given us what we now call the “Lord’s Prayer.”

Quality matters too, we can’t come to God any old sloppy how. We can only come to God because of and through his Son, Jesus, that is why you so often here Christians say the phrase "in the name of Jesus"  when they pray.  Moreover, in Psalm 66 David says that if he had cherished sin in his heart, then God would not have listened to his prayer.

That’s not because God is grumpy, but because he wants to sort out our hearts before we can move on. It isn’t that we have to get everything right before we talk to God, but just think sensibly and respectfully about who we are talking too and what he has asked of us.

And quantity matters, one example is in 2 Corinthians 2 where Paul says that he was delivered from death due to the prayers of many people.

Now of course we cannot go applying a formula to prayer that says if you pray "this much", then you get "this much" answer from God.  Prayer is not a business transaction.

But it is by our persistence and our volume of prayer that we demonstrate to God and to ourselves that we really want something and it is in that process that God matures our hearts to the point that we are ready receive what we are asking for.

Sixth, model your prayers on Bible prayers. The Bible is full of prayers, use these to guide your own praying for yourself and for others. For example, one of my favourites is Eph. 3:16-19 why not turn to it now.

When I pray for you by name, this is the kind of thing that I am praying for you. If I know of an outward circumstance in your life, a job situation or something I may remember to pray for that, but my main desire is to pray the solid gold of prayers of the Bible like this over you so for example:

I pray for ______that out of your glorious riches you would strengthen him/her with power through the Spirit in his/her inner being, so that Christ may dwell his/her your heart through faith. And that , being rooted and established in love, he/she may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that he/she may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Try it now like I did above, pray those verses over someone!!

Isn’t it good, don’t you feel like you’re doing something meaningful. God is not ignorant of our external circumstances, but when you pray, try to avoid spending too much time praying for external circumstances of people and pray for the growth and maturing of their hearts in God, then whatever the external circumstances, they will be secure in the love of God and able to overcome whatever trial they are facing.

The other benefit about praying Bible prayers over people is that they help you to get the right balance between worship, thanksgiving, confession, and asking God for stuff. Left to our own devices we often spend too much time waffling on in one area. Modelling our prayers on the bible help us to avoid these imbalances. As I pray that Ephesians 3 prayer over people, I often find myself worshipping God for how awesome he is. I can’t help it.

Seventh, praying with God by yourself commands a blessing from him. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that when we prioritise quality time with God in prayer on our own we are rewarded. Praying by ourselves to God is the proof to our hearts and to his that we aren’t just going through the motions with everyone else, it means that we want to be there with him and for him alone.

Now, as you leave the meeting this morning, the host team will drop into your hand a little handout I have created so that depending on how much time you have available you can make some time to pray.

If we have time to pee, we have time to pray. If we have time to watch TV, we have time to pray. If we have time for Facebook, we have time to pray. If we don’t have time to pray, it’s because we don’t think it’s important enough.

I say that not to heap up condemnation on us, but simply to bring a reality check because, we always make time for the things that are important to us.

No one has ever told me I am a legalist if I eat three meals a day or try to sleep 7 hours per night. No one. Yet, if I say I try to pray every day, some Christians look at me all funny!

Regular praying is not legalism, it is like eating and sleeping, it’s a healthy routine that brings life. We know how to feed our bodies, do we know how to feed our souls?

In 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul said he prayed night and day for the churches, This doesn’t mean that he was constantly praying, it means he would have begun and ended the day in prayer.

All down history, Christians across the world have made it a priority and given themselves to starting and finishing the day in prayer.

How much time we spend in prayer will depend on how much time we have, how tired we are etc, but committing our days to God before we walk out the door and committing them again to him before we flop into bed are so helpful to in keeping our hearts soft and responsive to God and the handout you will get on your way out will give you more on how to do this.

Over the course of the week, my rule of thumb is to try and do the morning and evening times of reading the Bible and praying, if I am pressed then it will just be a prayer before I run out of the door.

Saturday is a day for review of the week thanking God for what he has done and praying for what is yet undone. Sunday is a day of rest as I gather with the people of God to worship and celebrate together.

The other thing to say is that if we have lifegroup during the week, then that meeting becomes my evening time with God, I wouldn’t then expect to spend more time with him after that.

Pray with others. My morning times are by myself with God, unless Evie has awoken early, then I have to have one eye on her as I pray and read the Bible whilst she plays and eats things. But in the evening, Elli and I have started doing this together and our aim is that as Evie grows, she will participate increasingly in this with us. If you are single, why not pray with your housemates or find someone who doesn’t live too far from you who you can pray with – men with men, women with women.

Elli and I also meet up once a week to pray with Simon and Kat Starling who live down the road from us. We pray together for this community of Whitley.

Then of course there are our church wide prayer meetings and this week we have our week of prayer to kick of the new term, more about that in a minute.

Use technology – that could be as simple as a pen and journal where you write down what you think God is saying and what you pray to him as a result. You can then look back and see answered prayers.

I also use the Prayermate app which sounds fancier than it is. It’s just the equivalent of an old card index system by which you can organise the things you pray for. I have about 20 lists each of which vary in length and I pray for one thing off each list each day. That might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. I probably spend a maximum of about 30 seconds on each item which means it takes about 10 minutes. I’m not waiting to be caught up into a third heaven vision before I start praying, I am just getting on with the task of trying to faithfully do what the master has asked me to do.

I then review and update those lists once or twice a year to keep them up to date which takes about an hour or so.

Think about the physical position of your praying. If I lie down on the bed or sit on a chair, I find mind wanders or I nod off. I tend to get passive. So instead, I try to stand, kneel or pace up and down. That way, I find I stay more focussed and when I am moving, it helps me to feel more engaged.

Finally, fasting. Fasting in the eyes of the world is a ridiculous thing. How on earth do you achieve anything by depriving yourself? But in the Bible, fasting is a way of emptying yourself, on one level quite literally, so you can be filled with what only God can give – the Spirit of life. When God sees that we want what he wants to the point of denying yourself, again, his heart is moved to hear you. Again, it’s not a formula, it’s not this much fasting for such and such an answer, fasting is an attitude of heart.

If you have never fasted before, why not try skipping a meal one day in the week and giving yourself to prayer. You may feel like you are dying but you aren’t. If 12 year old Muslim boys and girls can go without food from sunrise to sunset during July as part of Ramadan, then surely I can skip a meal to pray. Muslims do Ramadan for the sake of pursuing an idol, who cannot save. How much more should we seek the face of God and his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, knowing that he will hear and answer us.

Move to Communion...

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sermon Notes on 1 Corinthians 9:1-12 Sacrificing Personal Rights for the Good of All.

For those of you who aren’t regulars here, we are working our way through the Bible book called 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians is not actually a book but a letter, written by a disciple of Jesus called Paul to a prosperous and successful, but also very dysfunctional church based in the sea port of Corinth.  Corinth was to Athens, what New York and Las Vegas are to Washington DC.  Athens, like Washington DC, was where all the boring politics and bureaucracy happened, Corinth, like New York and Las Vegas was where all the great action was, where the money was being made and where all the fun was being had.

Paul’s letter is long, at 6830 words it is probably longer than any letter that you or I will ever write. Today we are looking at a small section just over half way through the middle of the letter, which, thanks to the sixteenth century French publisher and geek known as Robert Estienne, we now call chapter 9 verses 1-12.

Before we look at this bit of the letter, we must be clear about the context and I will spend a decent amount of time setting the scene here so that when we read it later it should all be much clearer.
The great thing about verses and subheadings in the Bible, is that they help us find our way around quicker, the problem is that because it has been divided up in that way for our ease of navigation, we stop seeing the Bible and the writings in it as organic wholes that together make one complete story.

How many of you have ever sat down and just read 1 Corinthians from start to finish? You should.  It will take you about an hour or by the wonder that is the internet you can listen to it read to you for free if you prefer.

It’s a letter, and that’s what you do with letters, you read them in their entirety usually in one sitting. Have you ever had a letter, or an email from a friend which you read a paragraph at a time once a week?  No one would think that you were normal, especially not your boss at work, if you read their emails or letters at the speed of one paragraph once a week, you could well find yourself being made redundant for a lack of productivity.  Yet somehow, when it comes to the Bible, we think it’s normal to read them bit by bit in sections, rather than as a whole.

Now, there are a number of themes that run through this letter, which will help us understand, why Paul says what he does in this bit here.

If you were here when we were looking at the earlier parts of the letter, you will hopefully remember that Paul spent time stressing to the church that he is a genuine apostle and worthy to be considered a leader, better still, a father figure amongst them.  And so, again, today, we will see Paul defend his legitimacy as an apostle (spiritual father) to the Corinthian church.

But this time that defence has a different slant on it.  Last time, Mike, by looking at the issue of food offered to idols, introduced us to the theme of the strong and the weak in the church at Corinth. To use a wrestling metaphor, in the blue corner, we had strong who felt it was perfectly ok to eat meat offered to idols because idols are nothing compared to God and in the red corner, we had the weak who didn’t want to eat that same meat because it represented giving honour to those idols and compromising their allegiance to God.  These two groups were in the wrestling ring over the issue, but the strong were throwing their weight around and destroying the weak who they should have been viewing; not as people who should bow to the supremacy of their arguments, but as their dear brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.

Paul rebukes the strong and tells them that irrespective of their rights on the matter, they should if needed, lay their right to eat meat down for the sake of the greater good of the whole Church family.

This section addressing the question about meat offered to idols actually spans three chapters, finishing at the end of chapter 10 so what we are about to read is not Paul going off on a tangent about another subject, rather, having told the strong that they should lay down their rights to eat meat for the good of all he continues that theme by giving an personal example of how this laying down of rights works in his life.

Before we go there, we need to explore these themes of the strong and the weak and Paul’s authenticity a little more. 

You see, the strong weren’t just causing trouble in the realms of juicy steaks and bacon sandwiches, there was more going on.  The strong were those who held all the power and influence in church life.  They were rich, they were the ones with university degrees, the ones who had friends in influential places from whom they could call in favours, they were those with leadership responsibility and influence in shaping the life and culture of the church, and for all those reasons, they considered themselves to be spiritually mature and strong.

The weak were poor, living just above the bread line, they had little or no formal education, they had no friends in high places other than Jesus himself, they were the rank and file of the church who generally did what was asked of them and if they raised a question about how things were done, it would appear that they were just brushed off as being uneducated, immature or naïve.

We have already seen that it was the strong who, with their “so called” superior knowledge, were destroying the consciences of others by encouraging them to eat meat.  It was the strong who were encouraging factions, getting everyone to pick the apostle they liked best, be it Paul, Apollos, Cephas or someone else.  It was the strong with all their money and social connections who were trying to use the Corinthian law courts in chapter 6 to get their own way in the church.

We will see later in the letter that it was the strong rich who were humiliating the weak and poor at communion meals and it was the strong who were boasting about their amazing spiritual gifts and how they could speak in tongues all the time.

This should be no surprise to us.  There is nothing new about the strong manipulating everything for their own advantage, and the weak little people having to fight over what is left.  For most of history, most people have lived in poverty, whilst a few wealthy people at the top lorded it over them.  For all our talk about equality these days, the one equality that really isn’t getting addressed is the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.  Those who challenge that gap are brushed off as naïve and idealistic.  Whilst the crash of 2008 made many poorer, the super-rich continued to increase their share of the wealth and there is no sign that this trend will change any time soon.

The tragedy was that the Church in Corinth was more and more reflecting this kind of dark worldly thinking, where the preferences of the strong, irrespective of whether they were right or wrong were bulldozing over everyone else.

But not only are the strong throwing their weight around in Corinthian church life more and more, they are spreading toxic rumours about Paul, casting doubt on his authenticity and integrity as an apostle.

We saw earlier in the series that Paul has never asked them for any money to support him.  When with them, he laboured during the day as a tent maker, then in his free time, planted and nurtured the church.  But instead of saying “Wow, what a man filled with incredible love and self-sacrifice, he has freely given us everything he has to give.” they start saying things like.  “Well he can’t be a very good apostle then, if he is not earning any money from it.”  Or maybe they were offended by his refusal to receive any money from them.  “That Paul thinks he’s better than all the other apostles, he’s so super-spiritual, he doesn’t need our money, who does he think he is?!”

We do that too don’t we?  We assume that if something costs more, it must be better.  Whilst that may be true some of the time, it is not universally true. The rest of the time it just proves what suckers we are – duped by clever advertisers.

Do you think that Reading Family Church is a better church than other churches because it has a salaried staff team?

We are definitely better off from a management and administration point of view and in other ways too, but if we start to think that we are automatically more spiritually mature than the church down the road where all the leaders are unsalaried volunteers, then we are on dangerous ground.

Secondly, Paul isn’t married, but instead of saying “Wow what an incredible sacrifice he has made for the benefit of the church!” The strong are saying: “he’s a bit weird isn’t he?  Can’t get himself a wife, what’s wrong with him?  How on earth will he be able to speak with any authenticity to the women in our church, or to the dads with kids?”

Thirdly, Paul hasn’t been trained in the art of Greek public speaking, nor is he interested in merely entertaining his listeners with a good story, but instead of saying “Wow, Paul has understood the gospel of Jesus Christ really well, let’s glean as much as we can from him so we can grow and mature too!”  They say, “He’s not a very engaging speaker, he goes on for hours and hours all in a boring monotone voice, he can’t have anything worth hearing.

Do you do the same?  Do you think that if a preacher has held your interest and you have enjoyed listening to what has been said that they must be more faithful to God than someone who is boring?  When you check your phone during the sermon or start daydreaming about what you’re doing later; is it because those who speak aren’t declaring to you the words of God or is it because they aren’t entertaining enough for you?  Or maybe they aren’t saying it the way you think it should be said?

So as we read through this passage, and hear how Paul defends the way he lives out his apostleship, keep in mind that whilst he is addressing the whole church, he is particularly addressing the strong who are selfishly throwing their weight around and also casting doubt amongst everyone about Paul’s authenticity as an apostle.

He opens this bit with four rhetorical questions, to which the answers are all an emphatic YES!  And as I read I will insert some comments to help make things a bit clearer.

Verses 1-2
Am I not free? [Of course I am, Jesus has made me free!] Am I not an apostle? [Of course I am!  The Holy Spirit set me and Silas apart many years ago now during a time of prayer and fasting for this work.] Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? [Of course I did, he appeared to me on the road to Damascus as I was on my way to arrest Christians and destroy the church!] Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? [Of course you are!] If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
Paul effectively tells those who doubt his authenticity as an apostle to wake up, open their eyes and look around them.  The believers and the church at Corinth are the evidence that Paul is an apostle, that he did meet the risen Lord Jesus and that that same Jesus commissioned him to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the world.

Have a look around you now.  All of us gathered in this venue are witnesses to the fact that one day many years ago, God laid it on the heart of Sean Green, the lead pastor here at RFC who is currently on sabbatical, to plant a church.  If he had not been obedient to that call, we would not be here, not like this.  Not that all of us became Christians through Sean, most of us didn’t and would have ended up at other churches in Reading if RFC wasn’t here, but RFC is here and that is due to the obedience of Sean and Liz, leaving Bracknell with a bunch of others and setting up here.

In the same way, the Corinthian church would not be there if it had not been for Paul’s obedience and whilst he did not personally convert everyone or baptise them, all of the Corinthian Christians, whether they have met Paul or not owe a debt of gratitude in God to Paul.  Not that they should idolise Paul, or that we should idolise Sean. Far from it!! We are to worship Christ alone, but we should recognise and be grateful for the obedience of all the people God put in our lives, without whom, we would still be destined for judgment and damnation.

Verses 3-12a
He has another fist full of rhetorical questions.
This is my defence to those [esp the strong] who would [cross-]examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? [Of course we do!]  Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  [Of course we do!]  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?  [Of course it’s not!  Of course we have the right to be funded by you like all of the other apostles are!  For] Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? [No one does, that’s mad!] Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? [No one does, that’s bonkers!] Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? [No one does!] 
Do I say these things on human authority? [trying cleverly to manipulate you to get money out of you? Of course I don’t!]  Does not the Law say the same?  For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?  Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, 
Paul lays out that what is a normal principle in everyday life is also a perfectly legitimate principle to have in the church, which is that labour done should be rewarded appropriately.  If you turned up at work one day and your boss or line manager said to you that your pay check had been cancelled because the management felt everyone should work for the moral satisfaction alone that hard work is good for the soul, you’d check your phone and see if it’s April the first or, if you found out they were actually serious, you’d realise that your company had gone bonkers and you’d hand in your resignation and go looking for another job because you have real bills to pay.

Or maybe do it yourself, why not try telling your bank or credit card company that the money you owe them isn’t real, it’s just typed in numbers on a spreadsheet, just a bit of ink on paper or just some pixels on a screen. They would laugh you all the way to the courthouse and afterwards, drop you off at the asylum.

Paul says it this way, that no soldier signs up to the army to risk their life in battle for the sake of the cause expecting to have to take their own packed lunch and box of Elastoplasts along with them to the front line.  No farmer spends hours cultivating food only to watch it be taken away at the end.  No cattle herder spends hours in the winter snow rescuing cows from snowdrifts only to see their delicious milk get poured out on to the ground.  No one works day in, day out hours on end for the joy of work alone.

Not only is financial reward a principle in life, it is in the Bible too.  Paul quotes the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4 to be exact.  What’s weird is that if you look up that chapter, you find a whole bunch of verses about people and then suddenly this one that seems to be about animal rights – not muzzling oxen.  That’s a bit left field.

But it is symbolic of a wider point in that section, that those who have power over others should not abuse that position of power, and therefore degrade their fellow human beings.  If someone amongst you takes the place of a servant either by choice or because they have too, do not abuse the power you have over them lest they become discouraged.  If God didn’t allow the Israelites to discourage an ox by disallowing it from eating anything as they drove it around the threshing floor, how much more concerned is he that human beings treat each other with dignity and honour?  As Jesus said, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Paul has made himself a servant to the Corinthian church, and both the world and the word of God say that he has a right like anyone else to receive financial and material support from that church. For no one, should have to work hard without the hope of some kind of reward, whether that reward be financial or the receiving of some kind of recognition from others or indeed a commendation from Christ himself.  Meaningless work is corrosive to the soul and destructive to society.

Nevertheless, Paul has not taken up the right to financial support for the work that he does. Not because he has no right to it or is not worthy of it, but because there are other issues in play.  Paul isn’t against receiving money, he happily receives gifts especially when he is in need and we see that in Philippians 4.  But does not receive gifts as a normal practice in his life for three reasons:
  1. Because those gifts come with the loaded expectation that he will now give preferential treatment to the people who gave them to him.
  2. Because those gifts could give the impression that he is in it for the money. And finally, and this is the big one…
  3. Because he wants nothing to block people – especially the poor, from hearing the good news of Jesus.

Verse 12b
but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
Paul wants nothing to stop people from hearing the gospel and coming to Jesus, and if there is anything that does stop them, it should only be the message itself, nothing else.

Why does Paul have this attitude of laying down a perfectly legitimate right to the benefits of financial support?  On a purely practical level, he wants the everyone, especially the poor – those who just manage to scrape a living from day to day, to hear the gospel.  He doesn’t want them to disqualify themselves from hearing the good news, because they think that at some point Paul will ask them for money like all the other travelling gurus of the day.

But more than that, because that is the attitude of the master himself – Jesus - and Paul wants to be like him. John 13 says:
Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God.  So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him…
I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.
Do you think you have rights?

Jesus has more, he is the eternal Son of God, he has always existed, he created the universe by his power in all its intricate detail and beauty.  He is pure in all his ways – never has a dark thought, word or action been committed by him. He is always doing the right, good and beautiful thing.  He alone has the right to rule the world and expect things to be done the way that he wants, and that way is best for all. He alone is worthy of worship and adoration along with his Father and the Spirit.

Yet he gave up all those rights of strength, honour and glory to come and serve weak, foolish and corrupted little human beings like us so that he might make us beautiful like he is beautiful.

Supremely, we see that at the cross, where:
  • Instead of demanding his rights that people worship him and give him an easy life, he willingly, receives all the insults that they hurl at him. 
  • Instead of receiving the gifts rightly due him as a king, he allows himself to be treated as a common criminal.  
  • The one who has the right to all blessing, was, on the cross, cursed for our sake, taking the place where we should have been.
We see the same in John 13, it is hours before Jesus goes to the Cross, Jesus knows that the universe and everything in it belongs to him, he knows that he has all authority over it, but instead of expecting worship from his disciples, he gets down from the table and takes the lowliest place of all, washing their cheesy, dirty feet.

He who was the strongest amongst them, used his strength to serve those he loved.  He who had every right amongst them, gave all those rights up so that he might beautify those who had no rights, giving them the right to become children of God.

Jesus told his followers that they should do the same.  For it is by this that the world will know that we are his people.  If the world sees a church where the strong are throwing their weight around and having everything their own way marginalizing the poor and weak, they will see that we are no different to any other human community.

But, if when they look at the church, they see the strong laying down their rights for the benefit of all, just like Jesus, the mighty Son of God laid down his rights for the benefit of all then they will know that we are truly disciples of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, that the world would know that we are his disciples by the way that we love each other, not just in words but in actions, not just loving people like us, but in loving those who are not like us for Jesus sake, not by the assertion of our rights, but by the giving up of our rights. Not because Christians should be doormats for everyone to walk over, but so that everybody wins, not just the powerful few.

So, what right is God asking you to give up for the benefit of all?

Do you think you have the right to the last word in everything?  Might you not, for the good of all keep your mouth shut.

Do you think that because you and your friends are the kinds of people who represent the majority of people at RFC that you should have the loudest say in what goes on in church life? Might you not, for the good of all honour the requests of those who are not like you?

Do you think that because you have been here at RFC longer than other people, that your opinion should be heard more strongly than others? Might you not, for the good of all help those who are newer around here to get embedded in like you have, rather than leaving them to figure it out by themselves?

Do you spend most of your time thinking about how make the best of the rights you have for you and your family rather than for your community?  It’s important to look out for your family. But do you do that at the expense of the wider community, whether that is the church family, the place where you live or the place where you work?  Why not change your definition of the greater good to include those who are beyond your family and friendship circle?

Do you think that because God loves you so much you have the right to become everything you think you should become?  Do you expect everyone else in your life to serve you and God’s call on your life?  Don’t be so blinkered, stop staring in the mirror and start looking out for and serving others.

Do you think that Jesus died for you so that you could have the right to a comfortable life?  Loads of us think that. Me included.  Jesus died, so that I don’t have to. Well yes, that is true.  But he who died in your place, also said “Pick up your cross and follow me.” The inference of that phrase is follow me to death – to death for the sake of love.

You see when we kneel at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, or indeed before the throne of the risen Lord Jesus, all talk of our rights goes out the window and we repent of such stupid thinking.

A church that is most interested in asserting its rights, will see minimal real breakthrough in the things of God, but a church that is full of people who have given up their personal rights to comfort and the good life for the glory of Jesus and benefit of all, both those inside and those outside the church are a people who will truly see God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.