Monthly Archives: August 2022

When the fight is worth it..

It wasn’t long before some Jews showed up from Judea insisting that everyone be circumcised :”If you’re not circumcised in the Mosaic fashion, you can’t be saved.” Paul and Barnabus were on their feet at once in fierce protest. The church decided to resolve the matter by sending Paul, Barnabas, and a few others to put it before the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem…

The arguments went on and on, back and forth, getting more and more heated. Then Peter took the floor: “Friends, you well know that from early on God made it quite plain that he wanted the pagans to hear the Message of this good news and embrace it – and not in any secondhand or roundabout way, but firsthand, straight from my mouth. And God….. gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as he gave him to us… So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules that crushed our ancestors and us too? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Master Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those from beyond our nation. So what are we arguing about?”

(Acts 15.1-2,6-11; Message translation)

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you… The moment any of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered… When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace.

(Gal 5.1-4; Message translation)

Recent bible studies with our church in the book of Acts have brought us to this remarkable chapter at the heart of the story… The story of a massive, stand-up fight! We often associate the early church with generosity, lives being transformed and a general air of rejoicing and good will. So where does this battle fit in?

I want to consider today how some fights are not only inevitable, but necessary, and that as believers we need to be aware of this – ready to fight as Jesus’ disciples fought, for truth, for the good news about salvation by faith.

The church in Antioch, where the story begins, is the first non- Jewish or Gentile congregation to be established – ever. It was hugely significant in the onward spread of the good news across the known world, and must have been an exciting and sometimes chaotic place to be, with so many cultures coming together in faith. Into this heady environment of new life, hope and possibility, came a group of devout Jewish-believers who had come to faith in Jesus from their Jewish roots and out of a lifetime observing the laws of Moses.

This group asserted that the Gentiles couldn’t really be saved until they adopted Jewish practices – in other words, they argued that salvation came via the observance of circumcision and Mosaic law, in addition to faith in Jesus. Perhaps you can see why this argument was so very dangerous, and why Paul(himself an incredibly devout Jew) and Barnabus reacted with such vigour and concern. Such an argument implied that salvation was not by God’s grace alone, but that human actions – in this case law/ritual observance – were also necessary.

It was crucial to the ongoing spread of the gospel to Gentile populations that this false teaching be dealt with immediately and forever. If salvation is not God’s free gift, then grace is not grace, and we are still bound to sin and hopelessness!

I am profoundly thankful that Paul and Barnabus saw the danger, and with the support of the Antioch church, headed for Jerusalem to get it sorted out at once. Their willingness to confront wrong teaching – and the respect and gentleness with which the church leaders eventually responded – is an example to us of how we should behave when confronted with plausible but dangerously false teaching. Anything that detracts from God’s grace in Jesus, anything that suggests it is by my own effort/observance/tradition, that I earn the right to salvation is to be rejected with steady determination.

After this great debate – with all the discomfort and tension that such occasions produce – the message of the gospel could go forth with greater clarity, and the whole body of believers now knew that the observance of Mosaic law and ritual was unnecessary for Gentile believers. It was this event which ensured that the message which spread continued to carry the full power of God’s offer of forgiveness, salvation and transformation in Jesus.

Almighty God, we praise you today for those who were willing to be unpopular, to upset established systems and to challenge the influential parties. Thank you that through this great confrontation, you brought new clarity and commitment to the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus. Thank you that this same grace, undeserved goodness to us, continues to be made available to all and any who will today receive it and confess Jesus as their Lord. Give us courage to proclaim that message, and also to defend it against wrong and dangerous teaching. Be glorified through your church we pray O Lord, Amen.  

Frail as summer’s flowers…

Bless, O my being, the Lord, and everything in me, His holy name. Bless, O my being, the Lord, and do not forget all his generous acts… As a father has compassion for his children, the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For He knows our devisings, recalls that we are dust. Man’s days are like grass, like the bloom of the field, thus he blooms- when the wind passes by him, he is gone and his place will no longer know him. But the Lord’s kindness is forever and ever over those who fear Him and His bounty to the sons of sons, for the keepers of His pact and those who recall His precepts to do them.

(Ps 103. 1&13-18. R Alter translation)

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me… It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love…. My people are determined to turn from me….. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?  

(Hos 11.1-4,7&8)

Our human affections, as God’s image bearers, can teach us so much about the character and love of the Creator, and I have been considering how my experience as a parent has led me to a much deeper appreciation of all the rich metaphors in the scripture which speak of God as a mother or father.

Do you have any memories of your first encounter with a new-born child, of the sense of wonder and awe which is engendered as you see the beauty, fragility and intricacy of this tiny being? This is an echo of the delighted wonder with which our God greets each and every new life – He never grows tired of the miracle of unique human identity, but values each one just as they are. Frail we are indeed, and yet He lavishes upon us so much love and care, not willing that any should perish without coming into relationship with him. My challenge is to love those around me with this same open-eyed wonder and delight, to see them as He sees me each day, and to love them as He has loved me.

I have watched friends and family live through the trauma of miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death, teenage suicide and extreme, prolonged physical and mental illness, and through their traumas have glimpsed the acute and debilitating pain which such losses bring to loving parents and extended families. Does this pain not also reflect the depths of the love which existed? The more we love, the greater we can hurt when our loved ones are threatened, and how much it hurts only the secrets of the heart, the night agonies, the deadening, hopeless dragging days can tell. Our capacity to love and suffer with our children in this way is surely another echo of the heart of God for his own beloved children – we are told again and again, that because of Jesus, our pain is known, is affirmed and given its full significance before God’s throne. None of that suffering is wasted, or unnoticed – the Lord in heaven sees and feels the weight of whatever is crushing you as your young ones suffer.

And when these beloved children, nestled in our hearts and yet free to choose for themselves, walk away from the faith into which they were born, oh then how great is our agony.. The one thing which above all we covet for them, is the one thing we cannot in any way force them to receive. And then our ability to identify with God in his depth of agonies over the unfaithfulness of Israel is really established. Only when I began to feel it for myself, with a degree of desperation and fear, did I appreciate the passion and pain that lies behind God’s wrestling over the disobedience which took Israel to worship idols and reject their covenant-keeping God.

In our frailty, we find the burden of love almost too much to bear when it brings with it so much pain. And yet, we too are God’s beloved children; our pain matters to him too, and he knows our weakness. In his unbounded compassion, he invites us to take advantage of his loving heart in the same way that we welcome our children’s suffering as part of the privilege of being their parent. And here we find just how great is our God, how faithful, how good, how loving. We are never rejected or dismissed as too weak, too fearful, too anxious. We are heard and loved and grounded in order to go on, loving like our Father in heaven because of the ways He loves us.

Father, in our weakness, be strong that we might love well; in our grief, be comforting and giving hope that we might bear witness to your goodness; in our failings, pour out your grace to bring blessing to us and to those whom we love as best we can, in the name of the Son whom you love perfectly, Amen.

Measuring ministry…

He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.” But I said, “I have laboured to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” And now the Lord says – he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength – he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

(Isa 49.5&6)

Jesus called [the disciples] together and said,”.. whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Matt 20.25-28)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… he humbled himself and became obedient to death..

(Phil 2.5-8)

Followers of Jesus, people of the Way, called to a life, not merely an intellectual creed or habitual observances. My faith, unless it be manifest in works – in ministry and a godly life – is dead. But do you find it difficult to discern sometimes what your ministry is? It may not involved anything explicitly evangelistic, no teaching and training of disciples over text books and bible commentaries. You may not be the one who leads children’s work or speaks boldly at every mission prayer meeting… that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a ministry, a role to which God has called you and for which you are given strength, insight and perseverance each day. In fact, there may be several things going on at once!

The work of child-rearing; of house-keeping; of integrity and compassion brought to the daily tasks of your employment; of volunteering¬† among your community; of caring for elderly relatives and neighbours; of cleaning up toilets and washing dishes; of doing DIY and gardening chores for others; of praying in private, again and again and again for the lost sheep of the Great Shepherd. All of these are ministries, and there will be so many more, reflecting the gifts, situations and opportunities of God’s children around the world. Let us pray for one another, and encourage one another in these less visible ministries, where our service for the Lord is not under a spotlight, but is nonetheless our opportunity to delight in copying Jesus’ servant heart and humility.

In our human frailty, we long to be rewarded, praised and recognised for our contributions, and to see fruit for our labours. I think our Father knows this, and therefore he also understands when our particular ministries don’t seem to bear fruit and we are tempted to be discouraged. We can pray for one another here too – let’s be honest about our discouragements, in order that we may serve one another faithfully by restoring our focus on Jesus. We are called to serve, but we are not promised an experience of the outcome of our service. We may never see fruit for our labours – does that mean they are worthless?

By no means (as Paul would say!). As the passage from Isaiah says, our reward is surely in the Lord’s hand – to be kept for us until his good time. He decides what fruit will come, and whether we should see it or not. Perhaps it is better for us – sparing us the danger of pride and self-conceit – to be delivered from success in the world’s eyes. Perhaps we couldn’t cope with the potential shipwreck of our faith on the admiration and praise of other people!

Loving Heavenly Father, thank you that in Jesus we have a perfect example of life and ministry to follow. Help us to sacrifice our pride, our desire for human praise, even our natural hunger for fruit for our labours, at the feet of Jesus. It is our privilege to serve in his name, to love in his strength, and to seek his glory. When others see fruit, receive praise and even perhaps take credit for our labour, let us humbly rejoice that you are over all, and that you have a greater reward than we can possibly imagine awaiting us in glory. Make us content with whatever you choose to give, or withhold, so long as you fulfil your purpose in us. For Jesus’s sake, and his glory we pray, Amen.

A consuming fire

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy, in the sight of all the people I will be honoured.'”

(Lev 10.1-3)

“‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord..'”

(Ezek 34.11,12&16)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

(Jn 10.11)

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm…But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God…. You have come to God, the judge of all men…, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel….Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

(Heb 12.18,22,23,&28)

It is not easy for us to begin to appreciate the holiness of God – the ferocious purity and abhorrence of evil – which characterises the Creator and upholder of all things. We live so intimately with sin, subtly excusing and softening it in order to give ourselves an easy time, that we find God’s reaction to it a little excessive.. But that is our weakness and not God’s. He is goodness, light and love. He is right and true and entirely other than the corruption which is our nature.

From the beginning, the story of scripture makes it clear that holiness cannot be in proximity with sin; it must be destroyed – even as the power of the sun destroys everything that comes too close to it. And yet, God desires to dwell among his people, and all the story of salvation is designed to make this possible; from the sacrificial system, through the temple era, until Jesus came to be the living fulfilment of all those foreshadowings and models. He came to be the means by which holiness could be reconciled to sinful humanity, the one through whom intimacy could be restored.

In Jesus, all the destroying power which had to be unleashed against the offence of sin found its focus. As the good shepherd, he literally stands between us and God’s wrath, taking its full force upon himself – and being consumed. Thus and only thus, our sin is dealt with and we can enter into the perfect relationship which God has long desired. We receive his perfection, and he takes our sin. By dying and rising again in his new resurrection body, Jesus inaugurated the new nature which will enable all God’s chosen people to dwell intimately with his holiness in the new creation. There will be nothing in us from which God will shrink, or that could call forth his wrath on us.

Without Jesus, humanity stands before God as Nadab and Abihu did – presuming on our own notions of what is good and right, and being destroyed. With Jesus, our prospect is totally different. No dark mountain with destroying fire, but rather light, love, celebration and worship. The consuming fire HAS gone forth, but another has been burnt up for us, has completed the sacrifice, and as we – by faith – stand in him (Christ) so we receive all the blessings promised in his new covenant. We have an inheritance in glory, a place in God’s family and citizenship in an eternal, unshakeable kingdom.

Let us then worship him with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!

(Image is part of ‘A Garment of War’ by Sir DY Cameron 1864-1945)