Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Prayer to Endure: Sermon Notes on 2 Thessalonians 3:5

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Summer is a better time to take stock than Christmas and New Year, because it’s busy and it is dark and cold.

This verse is a window on how Paul was praying for the Thessalonian Christians and no doubt all the Christians he knew.

One of the values that guides our prayers as a church is to endure in the faith ourselves like Jesus did and to build a community of Christians here that endures for as long as there is a town called Reading on the map of what is currently called the United Kingdom.

The Thessalonian Church was a church under fire. If you read Acts 17, you find that the mob was out for them. Paul writes two letters to them and in this second letter, one of the issues he is addressing is that some have given up working for their daily bread and for the Lord because the opposition was intense and somehow, maybe through grief and discouragement, they believed the “Day of the Lord” had already come and that they would be imminently carried off to Heaven or some such. Paul exhorts and admonishes them to persevere in their responsibilities to the Lord and to each other, to be busy both in work to provide for their bodily needs and in the work of the Lord because the end has not come just yet. What might seem like the end times to them in their bubble, is not the end times to the rest of the world and they need to be diligent in serving the Lord for some time yet.

Two thousand years later and we are all still here! Some of those Thessalonian Christians would have their tails between their legs if they knew! Whilst our context is not a context of violent pressure like theirs, pressures still exist. The call to persevere remains, even if it comes from a different angle and the power to endure still comes from the same place.

I want to ask three questions relating to this verse:

  1. What is the love of God?
  2. Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
  3. How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

What is the love of God?
The true and living God is a community, a family of love: God the Father and God the Son delighting in each other through the fellowship of God the Holy Spirit. All three of them are fully distinct personalities, yet all three of them are fully God. And yet, they all dwell in each other so fully, that if you have met one of them, you come to know them all.

But here is a question. If the Father, Son and the Spirit enjoy true bliss and satisfaction in each other and have no need of anything else, then why are we here at all? Surely that means God lacks something, needs something – why otherwise would we be here.

The good news is that you and I exist not because God has some gaping hole in the soul, or because the trinity all got bored of each other, but because God is love.

You see true love shares and gives. When you truly love someone you want to share all that you have with them and you want to give all of yourself to them.

True love is self-effacing and self-sacrificing. True love does not say “look at me, I’m important.” True love forgets itself, it is too delighted with another. True love says I want to give everything I am and have to the one whom I love.

God the Father loves God the Son and desires to give him the greatest gift he possibly can. That gift was not the latest smartphone or even a stash of cash the size of the Himalayas, but people. More specifically a people who would love the son, and delight in him the way the Father delights in him. A people who would share his delight in his beloved son and be united to the Son in that love.

Think about that for a moment. As a human being you are, along with all other humans, the person sat next to you, your family and friends, and all the people who fill the earth are, in God the Father’s mind the greatest possible gift he could think of giving to his Son. Let that thought fill you with dignity that it should for a moment. Poke the person next to you and tell them they are the greatest gift the Father could think of to give his Son. You are not just a biological machine, you are not just the sum total of all your worldly titles. Whether you realise it or not, you as a human being, as the pinnacle of God’s creative genius are a gift – a gift from the father to the son.

And the Son is not passive in this gift giving process. He is not up in his bedroom in heaven playing computer games and shouting downstairs every half an hour when he wants a snack. When the father offers him this gift of a people to love and be loved by him, he doesn’t say Meh! Got anything else? He says Wow! That’s the greatest gift I could ever conceive of receiving. Father you are the greatest father there is and I desire that just as I have enjoyed your love eternally and honour you for that love, so too, I want to do everything I can so that this people you give to me, come to know that enjoyment of your love also.

And so together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they created the universe we see around us. A place that is vast in size and yet intricate and balanced to the finest detail. A place full of beautiful variety and yet ordered and harmonious in that variety.

And at the centre of that creation they placed Adam and Eve, the babies of the human race. And in this world of love, beauty and perfection, all we, the human race had to do was give our yes and amen to God by loving and trusting them and doing all that they asked of us so that we could grow, flourish and mature into a beautiful people who filled the earth with the happiness of God and when all had been fulfilled – when we came of age, God would give us in marriage to his son forever.

The problem was, we didn’t say yes and amen to this plan, we said no, no way. We didn’t say “I do,” we said “I don’t.” And in that moment, we became spiritual orphans and adulterers.

We became orphans, not because God the father died, but because we refused to recognise his existence in our lives as the Father of our souls. We became adulterers because instead of giving ourselves in faithful love to God the Son we gave our hearts and our bodies in obedience to another voice – the voice of the serpent. We have all lived in the shame, guilt and slavery of that decision ever since, deaf and dead to the voice of the Holy Spirit.

At that point, the Father, the Son and the Spirit could have thrown in the towel outraged at our faithlessness and consigned us and the universe we live in to the dustbin of Heaven and got back to the drawing board saying “Let’s try that again.”

But the God of the Bible is love, and true love does not give up. True love pursues. The greater the love, the greater the pursuit. The greatest love gives birth to the greatest pursuit.

More than that, only tragedy can truly prove how great any love is and so the greatest tragedy – our rebellion against God, whilst far from being the plan and no one plans tragedy – is nevertheless the opportunity for the greatest love to show itself true.

Whilst it is absolutely outrageous that the God of the universe should be humiliated in such a way, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is nevertheless, the moment in history where the love of God and the glory of that love is most truly displayed. And where the Son of God proves that he is worthy to receive all our adoration and affection as our future bridegroom.

For it is there he said I love you. It is there that he became our representative and stood in our place. It is there that he said:

  • Let me take your shame so that you can receive my glory.
  • Let me take your guilt so that you can receive my perfection.
  • Let me take your punishment so that you can receive my peace.
  • Let me take your bondage so that you can receive my freedom.
  • Let me take your darkness so that you can receive my light.
  • Let me take your chaos so that you can receive my rest.
  • Let me take your weakness so that you can receive my power.
  • Let me take your spirit of lawlessness so that you can receive my Holy Spirit.
  • Let me take your death so that you can receive my life.
  • Let me take everything that you are so that you can receive everything that I am.
  • I love you, I love you, I love you and my father and I want you to be with me where we are!

Paul sums it up like this in Ephesians 2: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Thanks to the kindness and mercy of God, at the end of history, there will still be a great marriage when God the Son, in the presence of his Father will be united in love to all those out of every nation on the earth who have believed and trusted in him.

The Apostle John puts it like this in 1 John 3: Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this in 1 Corinthians 2: No eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, nor has any mind conceived of the things that God has in store for those who love him.

David the Psalmist, puts it like this in Psalm 45: Listen, my daughter, and pay careful attention: forget your people and your father’s house. Let the king be enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for he is your lord. All glorious is the princess in her chamber, with robes interwoven with gold. In many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions following behind her. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.

Whoever you are, whatever you have done, whatever your history, whatever your trajectory, the Father and the Son desire that we all should join them forever in a renewed world unspoiled by our darkness and evil, and they have made provision such that no barrier can ever get in the way of us believing him. The only thing that can possibly stop us now coming to him is our refusal to receive his love. He will not force his love upon us, but neither will he wait forever, if you hear his voice today, don’t wait to receive his love and obey his voice.

Have you said yes to this call from him?

The Love of God is the Story of History

But what about the here and now, we have just looked at the beginning and end of human history, but where are we here and now in Reading in 2017 at whatever age and stage we are.

I have spoken much about the Father and the Son, not so much about the Spirit.

Which leads us to our second question...

Who is the Lord who directs our hearts?
It is the Holy Spirit who the Father and the Son have given to us to guard us and to prepare us meet them and to help us prepare the world for it to be God’s future home.

In the Old Testament, the guardian of God’s people was the Law – the law guarded God’s people and helped them prepare for the coming of Christ. The Law was to be a seal upon their hearts reminding them who they belonged to and light to their eyes showing them how to live.

The Spirit of God is the true and better guardian of God’s people. He is the true and better Law. He is preparing us for the return of Christ. He is the true and better counsellor, he is our the true and better advocate. The Law brought people near to God, the Spirit unites our hearts to God.

Like the Law once was, now the Spirit is God’s seal upon our hearts reminding us who we belong to and so Paul writes in Ephesians 1:13-14: When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession. He is also light to our eyes showing us how to live. Again, Paul writes in Galatians 5:25: Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

So in his role as guardian, what is it that the Spirit is to do?

His role is to take us from immature adulthood to mature adulthood.

When you and I turned 18, our status in law changed from child to adult, but that did not mean that you and I were immediately allowed to do everything that every other adult is allowed to do. Yes, we could legally drink in a pub without supervision, but nobody immediately handed us the keys to a jumbo jet, or the tools of a brain surgeon and said “Off you go, have a go”. If they had, they would have been ridiculously negligent. There was still a huge amount of training and maturing we had to go through, both in our technical ability and in our relational wisdom so as to become mature in our adulthood. And if you’re like me, you are still learning and still maturing. At 18, my status changed overnight, but my maturity and competence level most definitely did not!

Maturity isn’t a mix you can buy from the supermarket: “Instant Maturity:” Just add the Spirit.”

Just like the picture behind me, the girl who has probably just turned 18, has a different status in her family, but if she has any sense and her parents are any good at parenting, she will be constantly returning to them for help, advice and money as she learns to take her place in an adult world.

When God poured out the Spirit upon his people, it was a sign that their status had changed! Now they were truly born of the Spirit and children of God, now they were truly the betrothed bride of Christ, now they truly would reign with Christ and be seated in heavenly realms with him, but they were / are immature in that new status, and it was and is the Spirit who was given to help us to grow up and mature into who God has made us to be. Paul says in Ephesians 4:13 that we are to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” Paul is not just referring to individual Christians here, his scope is much broader, he is referring to the people of God down history, including you and me.

The giving the Spirit marks God’s intention to transition the world and his people from this old way of life in sin, death and hatred of God to a new way of life, a way of light, life and the love of God.

But this process of maturing that the Spirit wants to do in us doesn’t come easy! Like Josh said last week, nothing great is easy. The greatest tasks are often the hardest tasks, so if this stuff sounds hard or even impossible to you then you are thinking the right things and asking the right questions.
So we come to our third question...

How does the steadfastness of Christ help us to endure?

We can face opposition in the world around us, but even more than that, we find sometimes that our hearts are at war within us. The greatest battle in our lives is the battleground of the heart. Our old task master, Satan, that great serpent, doesn’t just role over when we give the allegiance of our lives to Christ. Moreover, our own hearts are so used to living a different way that they find it difficult do synchronise to this true and better vision of life.

In these moments of internal and external conflict the Spirit of God will point our eyes to Christ. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

The Spirit wants us to see Christ who is both our guarantee and our inspiration.

He is our guarantee in those moments when we are given to disappointment and frustration because we have let God down, that he will not forsake us. The blood of Jesus is always fully able to cover over and redeem all our failings and weaknesses. God will carry on to completion the good work he has begun in us.

He is also our inspiration for he has called us to finish the work he began and if we are facing difficulty in that work, we can look to him and his example so that we know how to proceed in the circumstances that we find ourselves.

What stops us from allowing the Spirit to direct our hearts?

At the root of it, what causes us to stifle the voice of the Holy Spirit is that we elevate the voice of our hearts above his voice.

Our culture is constantly telling us to listen to our hearts, that this is the way to flourish. Proverbs 14:12 disagrees, it says There is a way that seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death. What truly brings life to us is listening to the voice of God.

The danger here is not that we can’t be honest to God, we can and must be honest with God and with each other, the danger here is pride. Considering our voices more important than God’s voice which when you think about how great God is and how puny we are, is nothing short of madness.

This process can be subtle. You and I can fall into the trap of assuming that because we believe the right stuff that we have somehow been vaccinated against falling away from God, but if we let our emotions and desires be the prism through which we understand God’s words, rather than asking God’s words to be the prism through which we learn to understand our desires and emotions, then we are already half-way to living in disobedience, stifling the Spirit and giving up.

We may carry on being Christian on the outside, but there will little energy and appetite for obeying Christ’s command to complete the great commission and a strong desire to stay on the path of least resistance, maintain the status quo and avoid change.

Here are some emotions and desires we can elevate above God’s word in our hearts. The list is not exhaustive.

  • Disobedience
  • Failure
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Disappointment
  • Unmet expectations
  • Victimhood
  • Cynicism
  • Self-pity
  • Bitterness
  • Opposition
  • Fear
  • Fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Comfort
  • Pleasure
  • Overfamiliarity
  • Complacency
  • Deception
  • Fruitlessness
  • Frustration
  • Discouragement.

When these emotions and thoughts come we must speak the words of God to them and believe the Spirit as he reminds us of them and fix our hearts on the love of God and steadfastness of Christ.

Then, and only then, we will have the strength to endure to the end.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Conclusion and Cliffhanger: Notes on 1 Cor. 16:15-24

In this last section of the letter, Paul continues his closing appeals to his Corinthian brothers and sisters.

V15-16 Submit to those who work hard in the Lord.
Stephanas’ family were Paul’s first converts in Asia and the first evidence that God was with him blessing his endeavours . Their lives were turned upside down by God for joy and they turned their lives upside down devoting themselves to the service of God and his people. Paul tells the church to submit to people like this.

V17-18 Face to face fellowship brings life
Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus have brought the “report” to Paul. It’s off the back of their visit to him in Ephesus that 1 Corinthians gets written. Paul genuinely longs for the Corinthians as a father for children. These men have given up their time and money to visit Paul. They have refreshed Paul by being personally with him. Don’t let technology fool you into thinking connecting over social media is a substitute for meeting and connecting face to face, person to person, heart to heart.

V19-20 Family Greetings
Paul always finishes off his letters with greetings. Prisca and Aquila are a top married couple who get a special mention as they are with Paul now and were with him in Corinth when he first arrived to preach the gospel. They partnered with him in earning money as tentmakers to support themselves and in planting the church and so would have been well known and loved by the church. They will have served God faithfully for decades and risk their lives to serve Paul (Rom. 16:3)
What is a kiss? A small intake of air into the mouth. Symbolically, it’s the taking of someone into yourself. It’s evidence that they dwell in your heart and as they kiss you, it shows that you live in their heart. Healthy families show much affection to each other as well as looking out for each other. That is how the church should be.

V21-24 Assurance and Warning
Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus would have vouched for the authenticity of this letter having visited Paul, so Paul’s writing is, more than anything, a sign of affection.

In calling down a curse on those who do not love the Lord, Paul isn’t so much wishing harm to others, rather he is saying that if after all that God has done for you in Christ, you’re still not satisfied then God has nothing left He can give you. There’s nowhere else to go, except into the eternal night of walking away from the love and light of Christ. Loving Christ is defined by covenant faithfulness not emotional intensity. Jesus said “if you love me, you will obey my commands”

Paul utters a prayer “Our Lord, come!” A prayer asking for the Lord to return. A prayer for the second coming. When will the second coming happen? When the great commission is fulfilled. Matt.24:14. Do you want Christ to return sooner or later? If we love Christ, then why do we say in our hearts, don’t come back just yet, Lord? Many of us spend more time hoping that we will live long enough to meet our grandchildren before we die than we do hoping that we will see Christ return in our lifetime. 1 Peter 3:12 tells us that we should live the kind of lives that bring forward the return of Christ, not delay it. If you were engaged to be married and your fiancĂ©e kept putting back the date because they wanted to do other things first, what would you conclude about their love for you?

In closing his letter, Paul wants them to know he is for them, but that doesn’t mean he is blind to their faults or that their faults don’t matter. The Corinthian church is at a crossroads. There are many good things about the church, but there are also dynamics at play that could, if left unchecked, rip the church apart and destroy its witness. And so the letter ends with a cliffhanger. What will the Corinthians do, will they listen to Paul and repent, or will they ignore him and continue to let the cancers they have spread through their church body?

But more than that, God loves this Corinthian church and Paul loves the Corinthian Church too – all of them. Not just those who side with him, but all of them. He is a good apostolic father, he has no favourites. The rich and the poor, the married and the unmarried, the fervent and the backsliding, the more charismatically gifted and the less charismatically gifted, the presentable ones and the un-presentable ones, the strong and the weak... He longs for them ALL to know God better and to mature in the love of the God who has loved and called them to live with Him forever.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Have this picture in your mind as we read on…



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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