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.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sermon Notes on 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 "Wisdom for Living Between Worlds"

Today we are looking at 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, but I won’t get to that text until later, the reason being is that to really make sense of what we read, we need to understand the context both in the world at large and in the church, so I’ll spend about half my allotted time talking about that. The benefit being that is that if we understand the context well, Paul’s words will be less confusing and how we are to live as a result will make so much more sense. We won’t make the mistake of either badly applying or misapplying what he says to our own lives or worse to the lives of others.

So let’s get going on the context. Paul is not speaking into a prosperous peacetime context, but one of great upheaval. In this passage he says in verse 29 that “the time is short” and in verse 26 he talks of a “present crisis.” What did he mean by these things?

First, there was a famine that had been prophesied by Agabus over the whole (Roman Empire) World in Acts 11:28 and that came to pass in AD51 during the reign of Claudius. Whilst we don’t know when exactly this letter was written, many people with cool combinations of letters after their names seem to think it was between 53-57AD, that the “present crisis” Paul is referring to is this famine and that they are living in the traumatic aftershocks of that deadly period. Poor people are always hit harder by these kinds of events and in 1 Cor 1:26, Paul suggests that most in the church were poor and therefore most in the church would have gone through a severe time of testing. Whilst I don’t think this is the primary reason for the advice that Paul gives in this section, the famine obviously contributed to an understanding of the fragility of life; of not taking the gift of life for granted.

Secondly, the world at this time was in a phase of massive turbulence and transition both spiritually and politically.
  • On a political level, the emperor Nero was fermenting trouble for the sake of boosting his own self-esteem. Less than a decade after this letter was written, in AD64, he set fire to the city of Rome so that he could rebuild its public spaces as a monument to his own enormous ego and when he found out that his people didn’t really like him for burning down much of the city, he blamed the Christians, thus unleashing both the power of the vigilante lynch mob and the state on the church, arresting, torturing and killing many. Moreover, after Nero’s death (soon after the fire) Rome would go through a massive civil war as various factions sought to gain supremacy. 
  • But at the time of writing, pressure building from Rome was not as great as the pressure being applied by the Jews, many of whom were now actively persecuting the church, either from the outside, by getting people arrested, or from the inside, by leading people away with false teaching; telling them they have to follow all the Old Testament law and that the men have to be circumcised. Even more significant than that, the world was in a 40 year cross over between the end of the Old Testament Age and the beginning of the New Testament Age. Jesus said that The Old world, centred around Jerusalem: the temple, the sacrifices and festivals was about to come to a dramatic end (Matt 23:37-24:51) and that his generation of people would see it. And that is exactly what they did see, when the Romans razed Jerusalem and its temple to the ground in AD70 and whilst the nation of Israel was resuscitated back in 1947, the Temple has never yet been. Emerging from the wake of that collapse was a new world centred on Christ and his Spirit filled church which was to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. There are parallels here with the 40yr period in the wilderness (transition) which Israel experienced between the “old world” of slavery in Egypt and the “new world” of conquering the promised land. All this makes Brexit look like a walk in the park.
Finally, the end of the old world had begun. When the Cross of Christ was lifted high and dropped into the ground, it was, as it were, like a stake through the heart of the old creation. Ever since that moment, that old world ruled by the devil and full of sin and suffering has been passing away and the new world of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, the new world of Christ and his bride the church, has been advancing growing and maturing. And it will one day culminate with the return of Christ. Those of us old enough to remember the Matrix trilogy of films will remember the final moment when Neo defeats Agent Smith, causing the whole dark system of the matrix crash. The Cross of Christ, caused the crash of the old world and out of the ashes of that defeat, God is not only resurrecting and transforming people, but He will also resurrect and transform the whole universe.

So whilst Corinth was a relatively prosperous, liberal and multicultural place, there was nevertheless a large amount of uncertainty and upheaval in the background of everyday life:
  • On the level of physical existence getting enough food,
  • On the level of politics and society – with the earthly powers vying for supremacy and
  • On the level of the unseen, spiritual world, with the old order passing away – but not going without a fight with Satan trying to take down as many with him as he goes to destruction.
But there was an added complication. Into all this external upheaval, competing voices were vying for supremacy within the church. You will know from history lessons and from our own recent EU referendum that in times of tension and upheaval, extremist views find it easier to get heard in the public square. The church at Corinth was no different. But they weren’t just dividing over which leader they liked and thought they should follow, but also over the best way live out the Christian life. There were those who said “No worries! It’s all about grace.” Versus those who said “No Compromise! It’s all about righteousness.”

Have a look at the slide behind me? Which column do you more naturally gravitate towards? “No worries!” or “No compromise?” One of the problems of living in an advertisement saturated culture is that we begin to live life by well-meant but misleading slogans and clichés. All of the words on the slide behind me (“No Worries,” freedom, desire, spontaneity, hectic-ness, informality, “No Compromise,” rules, discipline, routines, order, formality.) have elements of truth in them, but if left unquestioned, or if we don’t allow the Bible to define how we understand those words, they will become infused with our own confused definitions and then they become dangerous to us.

Christian freedom is not the freedom to do what we want, it’s the freedom to do what is right.

Christian discipline is not the opportunity for us to show God how faithful we can be to him, but the opportunity for God to show how faithful he has been and will be to us! We read our Bibles not because we are trying to prove how faithful we are, but because when we read our Bibles we see how utterly faithful God is!

Some in Corinth were all about freedom and license – sleeping around at the temple, getting drunk during communion, eating food that had been offered to idols in pagan temples, (more on that in the coming weeks) and they thought nothing of it – No worries. God loves us – the Cross of Jesus covers all our sin! And yet over time, they start to make God look like a weak and overindulgent parent, spoiling their child.

But others in Corinth were all about legalism – they were no longer making love to their spouses, they were withdrawing from public spaces and they were spending all their time in church meetings speaking in tongues, because they seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that normal everyday things like grocery shopping, making love to your spouse and talking intelligibly to other people were far too worldly and not spiritual enough for “real Christians” (whatever they are). Yet they were in danger of portraying God as a harsh task master and looking down their noses at all those who didn’t share their view.

Paul will not be drawn into either of these two camps because, whilst having elements of truth in them, they are both ungodly at their root. They both are human-centred. The “no worries” people put their own desires for pleasure at the centre and the “no compromise” people put their own desire for glory and vindication at the centre. Neither of them have Christ at the centre. Paul seeks a different way, which explains why he might at times seem to contradict himself. He is neither totally for nor totally against either group, he wants to show them a yet more excellent way – the way of love – love for God and love for others. (More on that when we get to chapter 13 of the letter.)

Paul seeks wisdom which is founded on Christ and his goodness, full of the Word and Spirit of God. This kind of godliness does not seize what it thinks it should have now, but waits upon the Lord for his timing. This kind of godliness is full of praise, thanksgiving and hope, it’s wise, pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy, impartial, sincere, it honours God and blesses others, it is willingly self-sacrificial and it shows to the world a vision of life as good, the next life as even better and of God as a loving father, with us in Christ, as his joyfully obedient children.

Paul has waited on God, meditated and reflected on the context of the world at large, the economic uncertainty, the political struggles going on in Rome on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other and how the new life of the gospel of Jesus is transforming everything. He has meditated on the basis of his own first-hand experience of planting the Church in Corinth and now on the basis of the report that Chloe’s house has brought to him and in the midst of all that, he has meditated on the truth of God’s timeless word. And now, whilst he has had no direct heavenly revelation, he gives them trustworthy Holy Spirit inspired answers regarding the unmarried in their church.

V25-28: Singles? Stay as you were.
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.
Paul’s advice to singles in the church given the times that they are living in is the same as it was to the slaves and the married people from earlier in the chapter who have become Christians – stay as you were. Don't worry about the situation you find yourself in, do not rush to change it. Singles who are engaged to be married and on the road to being married do not now need to call off the engagement and if they get married, they have done no wrong – contrary to what the super-spiritual bunch in the church at Corinth might have been telling them. The only word of caution Paul has for them is that because of the times they are living in, they may have their hearts broken as they try to hold their family life together in the midst of a world that is falling apart. Paul, being the loving pastor, seeking their best interest wants to spare them this sorrow.

This week, as a nation we have been celebrating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In terms of loss of life it was the worst ever battle in British military history. The first day alone saw nearly 60000 men killed or wounded.

Now, imagine you were living in that time. You were a young man called up to serve your country in that battle, or a young woman called to serve the war effort at home. Imagine that you had just got engaged, as WWI kicked off over Europe. At best your marriage plans would postponed until the war was over, at worst your fiancée might not come back alive, or if he did come back alive, he might have come back with a body and mind so mangled by the trauma of war that your expectations for marriage and family life would have been completely overturned.

Times must have been hard, because Paul tells singles who are not in a relationship currently, not to pursue one. He doesn’t say that they should never seek a spouse, just that in the current circumstances, you may do better to hold off at least for now.

V29-31: Have a “camping” mind-set.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I remember a conversation many years ago with a guy who was very worked up about whether he should marry or not. The reason being that he thought that marriage continued for ever, not just in this life but in the next one i.e. for eternity. He was scared he would make the wrong choice and have to live with the consequences for ever. When I told him that marriage is for this life only, the joy and relief on his face was incredible.

In this section, Paul isn’t actually telling his married listeners to live as if they weren’t married, if he was then he would be going totally against what he had just said earlier in the chapter – for more on that you can listen to Sean’s sermon from two weeks ago.

What he is saying; is don’t get overly attached to this world or the things in it. Don’t live your life as if the 70 or so years you hope to have down here were the only time you have. Have a camping mind-set in life. When you go camping, you know it’s for a short time, that your real life is elsewhere. If the camping is hard, it’s pouring down with rain, everything is sodden and you are cold, then knowing that the experience will not last long is a great comfort. If however, sun is shining and you are having a great time, you still live with the knowledge that one day you will have to pack up the tent and go home, back to real life.

That’s what Paul is getting at here. Live here in this life, fully in the knowledge that one day you will pack up your bags and go home.

Now if you’re a Christian living in North Korea or Iraq right now, that is probably a great comfort to you. However, if you are a Christian living in the prosperous and relatively comfortable West, then that might feel like an interruption to your fun you are having.

Irrespective of where you think you think you are, remember you are camping, this is season you are in, this life you are living right now is temporary. A day will come when we all have to pack our bags and go to our permanent home.

V32-35: Count the cost, honour your word.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
In saying that we should have a camping mind-set, Paul is trying to help anxious Christians calm down and take the heat out of some of their decision making. That being said, he is in no way saying that we should be casual in our decision making. Living in this world as though we are passing through is meant to help us have peace in our hearts; it is not at all an excuse for being flippant in our life choices. The paths we choose to walk, assuming that we have a choice in the matter, deeply affect not only our own lives but the lives of those around us too. They also affect not only our own eternal destiny, but the eternal destinies of those around us too. We should be prayerful and careful in the decisions we make and then resolute and steadfast in following them through to the end.

Paul doesn’t lay down an exhaustive list of the benefits of singleness or marriage here so we should be wary of taking what he says here in isolation. Marriage and singleness both have their joys and their struggles, their pros and their cons.

Paul says that marriage comes with responsibility. Good responsibility. Those who are married have to fulfil obligations to one another and to their family. Single people also have obligations, it’s just that singles have fewer of them and they are not all legally binding. If, as a single man I got a lodger who I ended up not getting on with very well, then I could easily say to them that they needed to find alternative accommodation. However, if I get into serious relational difficulty with Elli or Evie, I am still bound both legally and in the sight of God to continue looking after them, I cannot cut my losses and leave.

When Paul says unmarried people can be more concerned with being holy, it doesn’t mean that single people are more concerned with purity or being “zen,” it just means that they can be more overtly devoted to the work of God. They can serve people in the name of Jesus, rather than spend hours and hours poring over the decision of which primary school to send their children.

Moreover, married people cannot embrace risk and danger for the sake of the gospel in the same way as single people can because they have others who are dependent on them.

This doesn’t mean that single people in the church should be viewed as cannon fodder for the mission field or that single people make better martyrs, nor does it mean that married people are let off the hook from living radically and sacrificially for Jesus - sometimes becoming martyrs.  It’s just that at times the risks, needs and costs of missionary work are better suited to singles i.e. people with fewer ties.

In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul will say that he has led a life that has gotten him imprisonments, countless beatings, often to within an inch of his life. He has been stoned, shipwrecked not once, but three times left adrift on the open sea, he has been in danger from robbers, from his own people, from the Gentiles, he has regularly been hungry, thirsty, cold and exposed. Now imagine if Paul had been a family man, what his letters home would have been like and the nervous wrecks he would have reduced his wife and children into as they wondered if he would ever make it home alive.

V36-38: Marriage is good and right, but singleness for Christ is “even better.”
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
The main question in this section is what does Paul mean when he says that he who marries does well and he who does not marry does better.

You don’t become an extra super Christian if you get married, and you don’t become an extra super Christian if you remain single. But equality of status, is not the same as equality of action and we should not confuse the two. God has no favourite children – the gift of Christ’s righteousness is the scandalous claim that all Christians, irrespective of track record stand as not only forgiven, but dearly beloved in the sight of God. But that does not mean that all our life choices are equally good.

Paul says here that marriage is good – very good, but that singleness is better. Why? Because it is a sacrifice. But marriage is a sacrifice, I hear you marrieds say. True, husbands are told to lay down their lives for their wives. But no one gets married expecting their life to get worse. No-one. When those who are married, met at the altar or the registry office, they did so in the hope of stepping into a better life together. It’s true marriage is not always easy and it can be a place of exquisite pain and sorrow. But it is still, at least at the outset, an enterprise of hope, help, joy and companionship.

Those who embrace singleness for the gospel whether in the short term a year at a time or for a life time, are making a sacrifice that others have not made, that is why Paul says they do even better. Because they embrace a loneliness that others do not, they embrace a sense of rootlessness in this life, that others, with their responsibilities to family do not. Their motives can be misunderstood; they can feel socially awkward – like black sheep, because they haven’t embraced the same behaviour as the rest of their peers. They are more vulnerable because, if they invest themselves in gospel and mission work, and it all goes up in smoke one day because of the moral failure of others or themselves, to whom do they go to grieve and find their sense of identity again if they cannot retreat back to their family?

A few months ago, Sean spoke on what happens when we die. On judgment day, I truly believe that those who have embraced singleness for the sake of the gospel, will receive a greater reward in tat area than those of us who married, because the cost they willingly paid in this life for the service of God was greater. And when that reward is given we will all say, Amen and give praise to God for the incredible things that he did through that single person.

Those of you who are single now should consider these things, and like Jesus said in Matthew 19:14 – if you can receive it, then receive it. But if you can’t you are not sinning, marriage for God is good, but singleness for God is better.

V39-40: Freedom with limits
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Finally Paul instructs that if a woman becomes a widow and decides to remarry, the man should belong to the Lord – i.e. be a Christian.

From this verse and others in the Bible, we have the teaching that if you are a Christian, you should marry another Christian.

This is not because Christians automatically have better marriages, there are some really toxic “Christian” marriages out there. Nor are we saying that when a Christian marries a non-Christian it is automatically worse. Those kinds of statement are demonstrably false.

Moreover, just because someone says they are a Christian, that doesn’t mean you should go out with them, nor does it mean that you will have no problems in your married life. Conversely, just because someone isn’t a Christian, that does not mean they won’t make for an excellent husband or wife. I know many spouses who aren’t Christians, who love their spouses in ways that demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the church.

What it means is this, that if you really love Jesus and want to live all out for him, then marrying someone who is at best, not invested in that same enterprise or worse, actively working against it, will be a source of sorrow or even outright conflict later in married life.

When it’s all dinner dates and romantic walks, and having lots of me time in between, it’s easy to think that later disagreements about how to spend your money, your time, how to raise your kids, where to live will all just somehow easily resolve themselves. They often don’t and the pain of that can be excruciating.

That said, like Scott said last week about divorce last week, it’s not the unforgivable sin. The issue is this, and I would address it to both the Christian and the non-Christian who are dating: why would you both knowingly embrace that potential conflict? Don’t do it. Just don’t.

I realise that I have touched on many issues this morning, and I may have left you with more questions than answers. I’m ok with that – my point this morning is to provoke you to godliness, not answer every possible interpretation or speak into every circumstance. But if there are now questions for you that need resolving then do come and speak to me or one of the other elders. The prayer ministry team will be at the back should you wish to talk / pray some of this stuff through with them.

But for now, let's eat and drink with Jesus in communion...

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Sermon Notes on 1 Corinthians 5: Drive Out the Unrepentant Christian

To frame this sermon… Let me tell you a story from the beginning of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. Are you sitting comfortably….? Then I’ll begin.

Israel after 40 years of wandering is on the edge of the “Promised Land”

Jericho is the first city they are to take and it is to be given to the Lord – everyone killed, all the buildings razed to the ground and all the plunder brought into the Lord’s treasury.

After the battle everyone is bringing the Jericho booty to tabernacle – the place where the God of Israel was worshiped.

But a man called Achan holds some or all of it back for himself – a ceremonial robe, 200 silver coins and a bar of gold.

His family is (forced to be?) complicit with him this – they should dob him in, but they don’t. They honour their family and friendship ties above obedience to God’s command.

As a result of this disobedience, God refuses to go with Israel into the next battle and they become sitting ducks for the surrounding nations to come in and annihilate them, 36 men die, men who are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers to many. 36 men who had been obedient in the battle of Jericho, fell to their deaths in the battle of Ai because of Achan and his family’s disobedience.

Achan’s sin weakened the whole nation of Israel so that together they could not stand against or push back the enemy.

Achan and his family are found out, and stoned to death for in their selfish disregard for others, they had put their personal family enrichment and pleasure before the safety and prosperity of the wider community of the nation and before obedience and love to God.

You might choose your actions, but you can never choose the consequences for those actions.

Had he known what the outcome would be, would Achan have done that? Probably not, but by then it was too late.

We find stories like this hard to stomach in 21st Century Britain because:
  1. There is a lot of seemingly gratuitous death,
  2. We more often think of God being like an indulgent parent than we do a righteous king and
  3. We are so individualist in our outlook, we just don’t see how our personal choices could ever be anyone else’s business and we often have a very poor appreciation of how our personal choices affect our lives as well as wider community life together.
But this story from Joshua is so important and helpful in shedding light on our text for today and helps us to understand why Paul gets so exercised about the situation in view because:

  1. Joshua under God, was leading Israel in conquering the promised land, Paul under God was leading the church in the new phase of Jesus command to conquer the world by making disciples.
  2. Israel’s battle was physical with swords and fighting. The church’s battle is spiritual with the words of God and prayer.

But the secret to success in Jericho, in Corinth and now is the same – active, obedient faith and trust in all that God has spoken. And the consequences of ignoring that are the same – divisiveness, disarray, disappointment and if left unchecked, destruction.

Without obedience, our mission statement of bringing the kingdom of God to Reading and beyond will remain a statement and never become a reality. And the devil loves mission statements, what he hates is when those statements become reality in real people’s lives so he will do everything he can to fool you into thinking that that obedience is either unnecessary or impossible.
Verses 1-5: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Back in Ch.1:11 we read that Chloe’s household has brought a report to Paul about the church in Corinth, and that report is the provocation for him writing this letter.

Having talked about how the old so-called wisdom of the world rooted in disobedience to God has made its way back into the church and caused divisions in it, now we see how that same so-called wisdom is causing trouble in other areas too. Namely, in the moral backbone and public integrity of the whole church.

A man in the church has entered into sexual relationship with his stepmother. We aren’t given any more details than that, we don’t know if the woman is divorced or widowed or how long this relationship has been going on for.

The Bible forbade this kind of behaviour – both Genesis 2:24 and Jesus in Matthew 19:5 said that a man should LEAVE his father’s house and be united to his wife and the two should become one flesh. No ifs, no buts, this man has done an outrageous thing.

That should have been enough, but then Paul reminds them that even the laws of Corinth, sexually liberal Corinth, where all kinds of perversions are not just tolerated but openly encouraged and glorified, also still ruled this to be an unlawful thing.

Now, no doubt there are a good number in the church that think he should have been reprimanded for this action, but somehow, so far, nothing has been done. The church as a whole has been at the very least tolerating this, if not actively shielding him from any consequences of it. Why?
  • Is he a big financial backer of the church who no one wants to upset?
  • Is he part of a family which had a big influence in the church and had started to throw its weight around expecting special treatment and intimidating those who disagreed?
  • Are they, as a church, so soaked in a particular misunderstanding of grace that they think the normal everyday rules of the bible and of life don’t apply to them anymore?
  • Or do they know they’re in the wrong, but are furiously trying to save face and pretend that they are a church which has everything sorted because publically admitting this man’s lifestyle choice would bring them more shame and cries of hypocrisy than they could handle?
We don’t know, but my guess is that, like the slide behind me, that their priorities when it came to how to live the Christian life had gotten totally back to front. And they had become so arrogant in it that they hadn’t noticed just how corrupted they had become. This counterfeit wisdom that had infected the church had gotten all their priorities the wrong way round. They were fussing about small things and ignoring the big things. Trying to remove the specks from each other’s eyes rather than removing the great big trees.

You see chapter 7 of this letter begins with the phrase “now for the matters you wrote about…” they are clearly very interested in knowing Paul’s opinion on certain moral issues like:
  • Whether they should eat meat offered to idols
  • Whether they should get married or stay single for the Gospel
  • Whether a Christian, once converted should remain married to an unbeliever
  • Whether slaves should seek their freedom
  • How to handle spiritual gifts in meetings and which gifts should be given more prominence.
  • And on it goes
But they don’t seem to care one bit about issues of integrity that God seems to think are of great importance, they never thought to ask him about this guy who is sleeping with his step mum. They were so ok with it, it never crossed their minds to ask him.

Those other moral and theological questions, which they do want ask have their place. But they are nothing compared to the big black and white teachings about sexual conduct and the reason Paul gets so exercised here is that when we sin sexually, we tell lies to ourselves and to the world with our whole being – body, mind and soul about the God in whose likeness we were all made.  God created sex and marriage to be a beautiful parable to the world of what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are like and what the mission of the church is. When we sin sexually we deny the nature of God and God's mission in the world.

Paul will say in chapter 11 that their communion meals do more harm than good, and one of the reasons for that is that some are grossly sinning against God and then walking into church and taking communion as if nothing has happened and nothing is wrong, he says: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine themselves, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself [and on the rest of the body for we are all connected inseparably together]. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, [if our priorities were right] we would not be judged.

Just as Achan’s disobedience brought disaster on the nation of Israel, the willful disobedience of this man in sleeping with his stepmother is one of the factors contributing to the disarray and impotence and potential destruction of this church.

Paul pulls no punches as a spiritual father to the church – he tells them that they must eject the man from the family of the church. The reason is simple, this man is claiming to be a Christian, but is living like the devil, and so to bring him to his senses, Paul tells the church to hand this man over the one who appears to be his heart’s desire - to the devil.

This is a restorative action not a vindictive one. The aim is to restore the man, it is a gift of grace to him. The hope is that this man will come to his senses, repent and then be welcomed back into the church family. Paul is echoing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. If the man doesn’t repent, he proves that his profession of faith in Christ, however impressive or seemingly heartfelt, is meaningless and he should therefore be treated like an unbeliever - that is with great love and compassion, but not as a brother or sister in the faith and he must be denied access to the communion meal.

Paul isn’t advocating this practice for all sins and all unrepentance. If I squash a fly because I get impatient with it buzzing around the room, I may well have anger management issues and you may well want to challenge me on it, we may end up agreeing to disagree, about whether I was in the wrong, but no one would think we would need to go to the elders about it and kick me out of the church. So what is the rule of thumb here?

It would seem that what gets a person excommunicated from the church, that is kicked out of the church family, is the same kind of thing that would have received the death penalty in Old Testament Israel. Hence we have the list later on in the chapter, if you were convicted in the Old Testament of idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, drunkenness, lying and cheating – in some or all of those cases, you would be handed the ultimate sentence. You would lose your life.

The good news here is that the death penalty is no longer in view, that is for the state authorities to decide and in this country, at least, that is no longer in play, but spiritually speaking this is no less serious, to be put out of the church is to be put out of Christ. In Matthew 16 Jesus said, whatever you (the church) bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, that simply means that Jesus will back up his church when his church is obedient to what he has told her to do, so if, in obedience to God’s word, the church has to kick someone out of the family for gross disobedience and unrepentence, then Jesus will give it his AMEN to them and back them up.

Of course there have been abuses of that authority all down church history, and Jesus will judge those who have misused his authority for their own ends, but the principle still stands and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If, in obedience to God’s word, the church has to kick someone out of the family for gross disobedience and unrepentence, then Jesus has said he will back them up.

The difference between the Old Testament and the New is that in the Old Testament, there was no way back. Once you were dead, you were dead. But here, in the new life of the church, there is every possibility that a person who has had to be put out can come back in and be restored.

And indeed that is exactly what we see in a later letter Paul wrote cleverly titled 2 Corinthians. This man has finally been disciplined by the church, has repented and is being restored. Paul writes in chapter 2 of 2 Corinthians: Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.

The good news is that whilst this man may have had to endure consequences to his actions in the everyday of life, he was nevertheless restored to full participation in the family of the church and welcomed back to the communion table.
Verses 6-8: Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul draws in these middle few verses on an analogy from the Old Testament festival of Passover.

In cultures where everyone made bread at home, the practice was that you would make the bread rise by creating what was known as a sourdough starter, but that took time and effort and wasn’t something that could be done every day, so they did something ingenious; once their bread had risen and before they put it in the oven, they would remove a piece of the dough, put it in a jar and keep it for the next day. The next day, when it came to making bread again, they wouldn’t need to ferment another starter, they would just make their dough and then add the lump from yesterday’s mixture into the new batch and the unseen yeast already present in that little lump inside that lump would multiply through the whole new batch. Once that batch had risen again they would take out another lump and put it aside for the next day and so on and so on.

A brief look on the internet told me yesterday that the oldest leaven lump known to be in existence is to be found in Newcastle, Wyoming in the USA and it was first created in 1889 – the same year the construction of the Eiffel Tower was completed. It is a lump that has been passed down the generations and continues to rise the family breads and pancakes to this day.

At Passover, the nation of Israel was supposed to get rid of all the leaven lumps in their houses and only eat unleavened bread. It was symbolic of a new beginning, a new start, a new creation.

Christ our Passover Lamb was sacrificed, not so that we could carry on the old destructive ways of life, but that so we could enter into a new kind of life – not ruled by the hidden desires of sin and the flesh, but ruled by the hidden eternal, holy Spirit of God.
Verses 9-13: I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
A couple of practical pointers then from these verses as we come to a close.

To reiterate from earlier, Paul is not at all advocating that the church cuts itself off from sinners or unbelievers, for those are exactly the kinds of people Jesus came to save and be amongst – the kinds of people you and I were, at least in our hearts, before we received the truth about Christ. In chapter 14, Paul seems to take it as given that there can be unbelievers in church meetings. If the church cuts itself off from the world, it will end up having no mission purpose in the world and therefore self-destruct.

The issue is that we should not call someone a brother or sister in the faith or be treating them like one if there is a gross unrepentant disobedience going on in their life. You can associate with them in all manner of other ways, indeed you have to if they are a member of your family, or a work colleague or someone with whom you do a hobby. The point isn’t that you shun them completely, that would be totally unworkable in some cases. You can love them in a thousand different and creative ways, just not as a brother or sister in Christ – until they repent. And until that time, you will have to live with some degree of awkwardness, sadness and tension.

Finally, when Paul says that he has nothing to do with judging those outside the church, he is not saying that the church should not be interested or involved with wider social or national issues, he is saying two things:
  • Firstly, that the church must get its own house in order before it starts getting involved in anything else. In a letter to Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that he should not appoint any man as an elder of a church if he cannot keep his own household in good order. For if he cannot manage his own household, how can he oversee the church family with any credibility. Similarly, if the church with all the power of God at its disposal cannot govern its own family life with any integrity or diligence, she will not in any way be God’s means of saving the world, but rather she will become a total laughing stock.
  • Secondly, that the church’s mission in the world is not to get people to behave like Christians, without receiving Christ. The church’s mission is to introduce people to Jesus and all that he is and says – once a person has received him into their life, then we can have the conversation about what it means to live like God requires, but if you just try and get people to behave Christianly without receiving Christ, all you do is turn them into hypocrites. And the church has enough of them already without making any more.
Purge the evil doer from among you. Drive out the unrepentant Christian, so that they may come to their senses and be restored and the church strengthened for her mission to the world.

The Bible says that God’s love is to lead us to repentance not complacency and pride. Sin has consequences that go beyond you and me into the body of the church. I don’t say that so that anyone can start a witch hunt on others, I say it so that we can all come before God in humility and ask him if there is any offensive way in us that he might lead us in the path that leads not just us to life but others too. Where sin has abounded, grace abounds all the more. In Christ, we are all connected together in deep and eternal ways, many of which we don’t understand, but we can trust God that as we walk in obedience to him, quickly repenting when we fall short to him and others, he will ensure that we have everything we need and will be successful in the calling he has made upon our lives.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Notes on Death and Judgment

To complement Sean's sermon, (which will go up on Tuesday afternoon) here are the notes I wrote, for our elders' meeting, that represent the historic Reformed Protestant Christian confession, on the weighty subject of death and judgment.  All of this turns on the assumption that through Jesus, God offers us not just a cleaned up heart, but a new one; not just a cleaned up life, but a new one.

---

Death is the defining chrysalis moment where our true spiritual identity as belonging to Jesus or belonging to the Devil is finally revealed.

The fact that physical death has not been removed by the Cross, should spur a Christian on to honest reflection, maturity and holiness not denial, dissipation and depravity.

Christians follow Christ through death to resurrection life and the new World. If the Master underwent it, so must we, for we are no greater than he.

Our attitude to death reveals to our hearts - where we really think our source of life is located. If we think it is in ourselves, our love and obedience to God will stall, if we know it is from God we will freely give ourselves up to him in love, even to death as he has already done for us in his Son at the Cross.

Below is the handout we distributed: (click on it to enlarge)


The apostle Paul in Acts seemed happy declaring the “brute fact” of Final Judgment to all people, believers and unbelievers alike, whether they were familiar with the Bible or not. What imperative does that press on us for our preaching, our personal lifestyle and our church culture?

The Final Judgement is the great unveiling. Things that were hidden from view will finally be fully understood. This judgment is not our opportunity to plead our case with God – that outcome is already known by whether we received Christ or not – the point of the Final judgement is the public vindication of God’s reputation in condemning sin (rebellion against him) forever in individuals who refused his offer or in Christ at the cross for those who have received him.

Thus, final judgment is for declaring the severity of the sentence for the unbeliever and the greatness of the reward for the believer.

If God does reveal the sins of believers at the Judgment (and it would appear that he does) it will only be in the context of vindicating his grace, and showing that no one receives eternal life on the basis of their own efforts, but only as a gift of Christ’s righteousness. It is therefore not a reason to fear, but it
should provoke a Christian to godliness and to the renunciation of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is probably the biggest sin in the church, causing the enemies of God to mock him – 2 Sam 12:14 (See NASB translation)

The Nature of Judgment

Christ will be the judge – unbelievers will never see the Father only the righteous will see him. (Matt 5:8)

Unbelievers will be judged and the judgement will be brutally holistic and nothing will be left in the dark, no questions left unanswered, no loose ends left unravelled – and there will be degrees of punishment. The punishments will be greatest for those heretics of the faith who whilst claiming to bring people to God led them instead to greater destruction by their false teaching - using Christianity as a means of getting riches and glory in this life only.

We assume that Hell is a place where people will lament and wish they had repented, but it is not. Only those who hate God are sent to Hell. The torments of fire and worm come as each time those who hate God declare how much they loathe him. Were it true that people were crying out to God from Hell to be saved, God would immediately save them, his compassion is so great. But the chilling truth is that like a madman floating on driftwood at sea, refusing to get in the lifeboat when it arrives, so too, gripped by the madness of sin, the wicked would rather be the kings and queens on the throne of their own sinful hearts and go to Hell, arrogant and defiant before God, than humbly bow the knee and lovingly submit to him. However moral and good they may have looked in this life, at the judgment, their nature as children of their “father” the devil - John 8:44 is fully revealed.

Believers will be judged equally holistically and rewards given, (remember their rebellion against God has been paid for by Christ) based on how they have lived. Whilst not everyone’s reward will be the same, for not all have worked equally hard and God is not a communist state, nevertheless everyone’s joy will be complete for God has no favourite children and Christians will have no favourites amongst their brothers and sisters.  There will be no pride in those who have received more, only humble loving service to those under them in the New World.  Equally, there will be no envy in those who have received less, but loving, humble submission to those over them in the New World. Love will perfect all things. Rewards will be greatest not for those who converted the most souls (that is often the immediate conclusion after looking at a subject like this), but for those who have loved God and then their neighbour most wholeheartedly, laying down their lives for both to the uttermost.

The Moral Application of Final Judgment

On a personal level, the final judgment satisfies our need for justice and lets us freely forgive, confident that God will repay rightly. (But remember, its God's standard of justice, not our flawed ones.) It also admonishes us to live righteously now in the present moment. and spurs us to compassion and evangelism.

On one level, this can all seem rather cold and clinical, but the Apostle Paul writes of the joy and sorrow he feels here, almost all at the same time.  It is a tension to be held, in trust of God, not a problem to be solved. The joy:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And in the very next verse, the sorrow...
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
---

At this point, one might legitimately ask:
  • What about those in unreached parts of the world who have never heard the Gospel?
  • What about those who never really heard the gospel clearly because all the Christians in their lives were too flaky to say anything? 
  • What about all those tiny aborted lives or the lives those who died so young?
  • What about the mentally disabled / enfeebled?
  • What about those who have turned away from God because of a dreadful hypocritical witness from those who claimed to be Christians acting in the name of God?
  • Will God really condemn these people?
These are good questions. And along with the Why does God allow suffering? question, they are probably the biggest arguments that lead many to reject the Faith or give it up if they began in it. They cannot reconcile a loving God with these kinds of black and white, in or out pronouncements on eternal destiny.

Many have given defences of God by coming up with reasons why God would grant all of those people eternal life. Others have come down the other way and said, there is no salvation without an explicit profession of faith. And there is every shade in between too.

Personally I would not want to declare either way. I know you think that is a cop out, but on balance, this is a tension to hold, not a problem to solve. There are some things that are for God alone to know. On the one hand, our confidence is that God is loving and merciful, gracious and compassionate, but on the other, he has not given us any confidence in the Bible that there is any way to be saved other than through faith in Jesus Christ, so neither should we.

We might in our arrogance demand, or in our grief plead, that God give an account of his actions, but the truth is that if we as a race had never rebelled against God in the first place, we wouldn't be in this predicament, so the blame is finally with us, not God. God has offered in his love and mercy a way out through his Son, but instead of taking it we try and frame God as the criminal in this, to get ourselves off the hook and vindicate ourselves.

Moreover, in our Western cultural narrative of "rights and equality," we tend to assume that we are entitled to God's kindness, that it's God's job to save us because that's what a loving God should do give us everything we want - like some kind of overindulging parent. Interestingly, in other cultures the question is framed differently, namely, how can God allow himself to draw near to such dark and lowly creatures as we are and still remain pure and just?  If we have an entitlement to anything, it is justice, not generosity, wrath not grace.

So when it comes up in conversation, I would be inclined to say: “Don’t worry about other people, God will take care of them rightly, the question is what are you going to do with Jesus’ offer of life to you today? Or if they are Christian – What does this knowledge of Judgment mean for you? What has God asked of you when it comes to being his witness to the world around you?

One interesting example of this is how the Mouk people received the Gospel. (See from 27:23, but the whole video is worth a watch. It's the second of a two part film series.  Chapter 1 is here.)  The Mouk people could have gotten really angry with God that their relatives and ancestors had entered a Christless eternity, and they do mourn for them, but they don’t allow that sorrow to overshadow the great joy they have at receiving Christ as their Lord and Saviour, or stop it from sharing what they have received with others.

---

For more on what we believe at RFC, click here.