Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sermon: Romans 1: 1-17 I am not ashamed of the gospel

I wonder if you've ever been ashamed. Maybe it was a long time ago when you thought you were a big boy, and your mum took your hand to cross the street - in front of your friends. Perhaps it was an embarrassing situation where you've made yourself to look like an eejit. You'd rather the ground swallow you up. Like the time you asked the lady when her baby was due and then to discover she wasn't actually pregnant... I think one of the times I was most ashamed was the night many years ago we took the youth group to Dundonald Ice Bowl, and I managed to split my trousers while ten pin bowling. If you've been very fortunate to have never been ashamed of yourself, then maybe you can identify by thinking of the situations others get themselves in!

In our second reading today, we hear about being ashamed, or rather, about not being ashamed. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome before he comes to visit. He has been wanting to visit for a long time, to make it to the capital of the entire Roman Empire, but he hasn't made it so far. And why is it he wants to get to Rome? Is it for a decently priced city break? Does he want to do the touristy sites - the Coliseum, the Vatican? Well, no, of course not, the Vatican doesn't exist.

He is eager to get to Rome because he wants to preach the gospel in Rome. Just as he has been preaching everywhere else, so now he longs to go to Rome to preach the gospel in that great city. But once he says that, he then says what might seem as a bit of a strange thing to say: 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel.'

Why does Paul say this? Or, to put it more accurately, why does he feel he has to say this? It must be because some people were ashamed of the gospel. Perhaps the Christians in Rome were under pressure from their friends and workmates - you don't really believe all that about Jesus, do you? You don't really think there's only one God rather than all the hundreds of Roman gods and goddesses? Is it not very intolerant of you to claim that there is only one way to God?

There is always a danger of drifting. To pay more attention to the opinions of the world around us than God's opinion will always lead us away from God, to be ashamed of God and his gospel. I wonder if you have felt that pressure as well? It's easier to be ashamed of God and turn away.

For Paul, there may also have been the temptation to tone down his message. Perhaps people were saying to him - do you really have to be so dedicated and committed? Maybe you wouldn't land in prison as often if you just moderated your message.

But Paul declares that 'I am not ashamed of the gospel.' In doing so, he challenges the Roman Christians, and us as well gathered here today, to echo his words. I wonder can you say with him, 'I am not ashamed of the gospel'? To help you do that, let's look at why Paul says it - what the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

So what is the gospel? So that the Romans are left in no doubt, Paul outlines the gospel in the very first verses of the letter. The whole letter is a fuller statement of the full extent of the gospel, but even in the very first verse, Paul gets to the gospel of God. This isn't just a fairy story; it isn't something made up to make us feel good for now. It's not, as Marx claimed, the opiate of the people, designed to keep the poor happy until they die. The gospel is God's gospel - his good news given to us.

This good news didn't just appear in the first century either. The gospel was promised beforehand by God - through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Old Testament was laying the foundation for what would come later, just as you have to lay your foundation before you build a house.

The gospel is all about a person. Paul writes, 'concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.' The gospel is the good news about Jesus, the God-man who was the Son of David (the King), and the Son of God. He lived, he died on the cross, and he was raised to new life. This is the good news, that Jesus has defeated death, and now lives. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there is no news, no good news. This is the gospel - Jesus died and lives.

So why does Paul hold fast to this gospel? Why is he not ashamed of it? He tells us the reason in verse 16. Here's what the gospel does. 'For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.'

This message about Jesus is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. You see, without Jesus, we are in danger. We are lost. We need to be rescued. We are dead men walking. We stand under judgement by a holy God, who cannot abide our sin. And yet so often we don't realise. We drift along, in danger unawares.

Now if you’re out on a boat on Lough Erne and you get into difficulties, then you need a rescuer. You need someone to come and get you out of danger and bring you back to safety. And that’s what Jesus has done. He came into this world, he took on our flesh, he took up our sin, and he gave his life so that we might live. The King of heaven left his high throne to be the rescuer.

The rescue has been accomplished. The victory has already been won. And all you have to do is to trust in the Lord Jesus - to believe the good news proclamation. As Paul goes on to say: ‘for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’ Everyone, anyone, all who will come will be saved. Those like us and those we like; those we don’t like so much - all can come and be saved.

It’s not about bringing a big list of reasons why you should be good enough for God to save. To trust in ourselves is to say that Jesus isn’t enough; that we can do it by ourselves. But there is only salvation in Jesus. Without the gospel, we are lost, both now and for eternity. In the gospel, we find God’s righteousness revealed, accessible only by faith.

About five hundred years ago, a German monk struggled to be good enough to please God. He could never be satisfied that he had done enough. The demands of God’s law weighed down heavily upon him, with no relief. He even grew to hate the God he tried to serve. But then he began to study Romans, and in 1:17 found the key to his own changed life, and began the Protestant Reformation.

‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Martin Luther came to discover that it’s not about what we bring to the table. The good news of the gospel declares the finished work of Christ and asks us - do you believe this? It is by faith that we trust the promise, and by faith that we receive eternal life. This is why Paul is not ashamed of the gospel. It is God’s gospel from start to finish. It’s all about Jesus, what he has done for us. And it is the power of God for salvation for anyone who will believe.

Perhaps today as you hear of the gospel, you realise that you’ve never really believed the message. You’ve heard it many times before, but never received it for yourself. You can trust in Christ for the first time, just where you’re sitting. Take hold of the promises. Look to Christ, and discover that he did it all for you. Believe on him today.

But maybe you’ve been a Christian for a long time. You’ve been around a few corners and you know how life works. It’s far easier to keep your faith private. No one else need know. No one could even guess! Paul challenges you today - are you ashamed of the gospel?

As we are reminded of the glories of Christ, the marvellous good news of what he has done, the amazing promise that anyone who believes will be saved, may our hearts be strangely warmed like Wesley on reading Luther’s introduction to Romans. Be bold in your faith and your proclamation. Count all else as loss compared to knowing Christ. Live in such a way that proclaims to everyone you meet: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel.’ And may we all, on that last day, be joined with the great crowd from every nation, all who have received the good news and trusted the Lord Jesus, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the RBP service for Brookeborough Victoria RBP 487 in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 47 Directions for Worship

If you’ve been away over the summer, you might have gone along to church where you were staying. And if it wasn’t a Church of Ireland church (or maybe if it was!), you get to your seat and you look around. There might be a hymn book, hopefully a Bible, but you won’t find a Prayer Book in the Methodists or Baptists. The service will all come from the front, not necessarily set out for you to follow along.

It’s the Church of Ireland (or Anglican churches across the world) where you find the BCP, the Book of Common Prayer. In it, the services are laid out, the words are there to follow so you know what to say, but as well as the words, sometimes there are also some stage directions. The rubrics (the bits in red ink - think ruby red) are the bits that tell you how to worship - whether to stand or sit or kneel. They are the directions for worship. They tell you (or invite you) what to do as you worship God.

And in our reading from Psalm 47, we find some more directions for worship. But, being Church of Ireland, these directions might take us by surprise, or at least, out of our comfort zone. Just look, for example, at the very first word of the psalm. We’re used to a round of applause coming at the end of a song or a play or when the plane has landed safely, but here the applause comes at the start: ‘Clap your hands, all peoples!’

Immediately, the call to worship goes out from the temple - not just to the Israelites gathered at the temple, but to ‘all peoples.’ Every person of every people / nation is called to worship, to clap your hands. But this isn’t a polite round of applause when the Sunday School have sung at the Family Service. Not when it’s joined by the next line: ‘Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’

This is the roar of a crowd at a sporting event. It’s going to be loud! Don’t hold back. Now that might well be beyond what you’re used to. But that’s the first call to worship. We might be better able for the second call to worship found in verse 6: ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!’ [Sometimes modern songwriters get a bit of stick for a repetitive chorus. The sons of Korah were at it a long time ago!]

The call to worship goes out from Jerusalem to all peoples. The instructions are clear. It’s going to involve clapping, shouting, and singing. Lots of singing. But you know the way sometimes you wonder why we do what we do? Why do we stand during the Communion prayer when we used to kneel; or why do we do what some of my Presbyterian friends call ‘Anglican Aerobics’ - the standing, sitting, kneeling, up and down and up again? There’s normally a good reason for why we do what we do, but in case we’re in any doubt, the sons of Korah give us lots of reasons to praise God by clapping, shouting and singing.

Do you see the start of verses 2 and 7? The same word is there each time. ‘For’. Here’s the reason for the call to worship. Here’s why we are to do what we do. In both verse 2 and verse 7, the same point is brought out. In fact, the same words are used. Why should all the nations praise God? ‘For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth.’ (2) ‘For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.’ (7)

God is the King, not just in Jerusalem; not just in Israel; he is the King of/over all the earth. If God rules over all the earth, then every person should worship their true king. Now that should be a good enough reason. But the psalm gives us even more reasons to worship. The evidence that God is indeed king of all the earth. The evidence of both the past and the present. Do you see the pattern here? A call to worship (v1, v6); a declaration of God as king (v 2, v7); the evidence of God’s kingship - in the past (v3-5) and the present (v8-9).

So what has already happened? Look at verse 3: ‘He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.’ As the sons of Korah lead worship in the Jerusalem temple they look back to their history. They remember that God gave them the victory as he subdued the nations who lived in the land. God gave them the promised land they were living in. They were small and weak (like grasshoppers compared to the Canaanites), but God the King gave them the victory. They couldn’t have done it by themselves. God must be the king over all, for them to have gained the land of promise. In the past, God subdued the nations opposed to him and his people. Grand High Treason is always punished. God did that as a sign of his love for his people - giving them their heritage, this pride of Jacob.

But now the call goes out to all peoples to sing praises to God. God is the king of all the earth, with all the trappings of kingship - he reigns over the nations; he sits on his holy throne. And here’s the present tense evidence of God’s kingly reign. Here’s the reason for everyone to praise him. Look at verse 9: ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.’

Here we get a glimpse of what God is doing, and continues to do more and more since Jesus the King reigns. People from every nation are being gathered together as the people of the King. The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games was on TV on Wednesday night. Athletes from over sixty nations paraded into Celtic Park, people from Northern Ireland and Namibia and Nauru joining together for a fortnight of swimming and shooting and squash. But it’s just a glimpse of people from every nation coming together as the people of the King. And what was being seen as present in the psalm writer’s day is even more so now.

Look how God is described. He is the God of Abraham. Now why did the sons of Korah describe God in that way? Why not just write ‘The princes of the peoples gather as the people of God.’ It’s shorter, simpler, and saves on scrolls. There must be a reason why God is described in this way. And if you were around when I wasn’t, then you might be one step ahead of me. Robert preached three weeks focussing on the promise God made to Abraham (Gen 12) and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. God had said: ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12:3). As the nations hear the call to worship the King, so they find blessing, as they gather as the people of the God of the promise, the God of Abraham.

Directions for worship, and the reason why. We’re faced with a challenge this morning. The call to worship has gone out. Have we heard it and heeded it? Are you worshipping God, the King of all the earth? Not just on a Sunday as you clap and shout and sing, but in every moment of your life? If you aren’t already, in heart and voice, then join the chorus.

But if you have heard, and you are worshipping, then it’s up to us to also join with the sons of Korah, not just in worshipping, but also in calling others to worship. Our church must turn from only being inward focused, and start to look outside. We’re good at the big social events - the BBQ brings in a huge crowd, but are we only inviting people to have a good night? How can we also invite them to worship God with us? Let’s clap, and shout, and sing for God our King. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th July 2014.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 45 The Wedding Singer

When we normally think of the Psalms, you probably think of David, the shepherd king. Among the many books in my study, there’s a huge set of books written by Spurgeon called ‘The Treasury of David.’ But when you look more closely, you discover that only about half (72) are from David’s pen. Some have no author; there are some one hit wonders from Heman, Ethan and Moses. Solomon has a couple, Asaph has a few, and some come from the Sons of Korah.

The Sons of Korah might sound like a flute band. They were actually Levites, part of the praise group in the temple. The leaders of worship as the Old Testament people of God gathered together. Led by the Spirit, they composed some Psalms, and over the summer, we’ll be joining with them to praise our God.

This morning, the day after a wedding, we find ourselves with a wedding psalm. It’s a love song, but not as we know it. So in a wedding venue, with wedding flowers, we listen in as the wedding singer strikes up. It’s a pleasing theme, as he sings out of the overflow of his heart. He’s singing for his king, and he wants us to join in as well. One of our teachers at school used to get us to copy down some notes he would dictate from a book. His catchphrase was ‘pens at the ready’ - and that’s the image the singer gives us. ‘My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.’ He’s raring to go. Is your tongue ready to sing? [For perhaps the only time ever in church, why don’t you stick out your tongue to warm it up!]

We all know how weddings work. You need a man and a woman. And if you think about the way it works out in church, the groom arrives first. He’s already here, waiting on the bride to arrive (hopefully not too late!). That’s the same structure that we find in the psalm. From verses 2-9 there’s a portrait of the groom, and the rest of the psalm shows us the bride.

So let’s look at the groom. The singer rejoices in the king as he stands waiting for his bride. ‘You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.’

This is a victorious king, a mighty one, with a sword which shows splendour and majesty. A king who rides out for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness. A king who defeats any enemies. A king who is respected and admired.

In a world of pain and fear and injustice, how we need a king like this! In the week when a plane is shot out of the sky; when Israel and Palestine continue to fight; when Christians in Mosul in Iraq are marked for destruction; when Parliament discusses enabling assisted suicide; when every day we hear of assaults and thefts and violence. Oh how we need this king riding out for truth and meekness and righteousness!

The wedding singer says that he has this wonderful king. Now you might have thought that the king sounds too good to be true. Maybe he’s only saying these things because he’s paid by the king. It’s his job to make the king sound good. Is this all just a bit of positive PR, a bit of spin at the heart of government?

You would nearly think it with what he goes on to say in verse 6. Look at it with me. ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever. The sceptre of your kingdom is a sceptre of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.’ He’s singing to the king, he’s addressing the king - and now does he turn to God and praise God for his everlasting kingdom? That’s what we want to think. Surely the wedding singer wouldn’t go so far as to call the king ‘God’? Surely that’s blasphemous. Solomon or whichever of the kings of Judah may have been great, but they weren’t God.

Yet that’s exactly what the singer, led by the Spirit, is saying. Look how verse 7 follows on. Your throne, O God... Therefore God, your God, has anointed you...

The king is described as God, who has a your God. So what’s going on here? As the singer sings of what’s going on in front of him, it’s as if he is also seeing beyond these events to their fulfilment.

You sometimes hear of childhood sweethearts who met on the first day of P1 and through primary school played at weddings. Twenty years later, they are getting married for real. Well here, the wedding singer sees the ‘real’ wedding as he watches the king of Judah get married. It’s a picture of where the whole of history is going - a wedding, between the king who is God and his bride.

The king is the anointed one (the Messiah). The most handsome of the sons of men who is truly God, the Son of God. Over in the New Testament, the writer to the Hebrews picks up these verses to show just who Jesus is, and why Jesus is better. These verses are all about Jesus, the conquering king; the one who rides for truth and meekness and righteousness; the one whose throne is for ever and ever. Jesus, the king, the royal bridegroom who stands to receive his bride.

In verse 10, the singer speaks to the bride, the queen. Here is the way to come to the king. Forget what lies behind; bow to him. See how wonderfully she is attired - there’s always a great fascination about what the bride was wearing - here there is no expense spared - robes interwoven with gold; many-coloured robes.

She is brought with joy and gladness into the palace of the king. He brings her in, she finds her place beside him. The marriage has begun. And immediately, the future is bright. Look at how the psalm closes. There will be sons, princes in all the earth. But even more, the name of the king will be remembered.

When we were clearing out granny’s house, we discovered old wedding photos none of us knew were there. To see granny and granda on their wedding day was great. Photos can last a long time. But even longer lasting is this song, this psalm. The wedding singer has recorded that special day so that thousands of years later we can see what he saw.

How much more, then, the fulfilment of that day. The royal wedding to come, when Jesus is united fully and finally with his bride the church. ‘I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations; therefore nations will praise you for ever and ever.’

The best wedding ever is still to come. You can be involved in it - not just as a wedding singer; not even as a guest. You can be involved as the bride, the people of God, the church. The praise of Jesus, our God and our King, will resound for ever and ever. So why not come today, turn from all that’s past. Forget what’s behind and bow to the king.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 20th July 2014.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review: Jesus and the Logic of History

Have you ever had a book sitting on your shelf for ages and ages? You think you know what it's going to say, and so you leave it to descend in your reading priorities. And then you eventually get around to reading it and wonder why you left it so long? That's been my experience with this book - Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul Barnett.

The big idea behind the book is that we can get to know that the gospel accounts are accurate through the incidental details recorded in the New Testament letters. Just think for a moment. Within the letters, which were written before the gospels, there are details about the person and character and life of Jesus which were already part of the eyewitness testimony. The fact that they are already written down before we get to the gospel accounts must mean that the gospels themselves are authentic and accurate records of the life of Jesus. That's the summary of the book. To discover a bit more, read on!

Barnett introduces his book with the reminder that 'Christianity is a historical religion in at least two senses' - that it is a part of world history, but also because 'Jesus was a real man.' That means that 'the origins of Christianity are not mythical in character.' Yet many scholars are attempting to redefine Jesus historically, casting him in some other light, such as a sage, or prophet, or cynic, or whatever. 'There are as many Jesus as there are people who write about him' - each of them seeing their own type of hero in him. Contrasting with this, 'It is the argument of this book that the 'logic' of history demands a Jesus who is definable and about whom a practical consensus can be reached. By this logic it is argued that the Christ of the early church's faith and proclamation must have borne a close relationship to Jesus the historical figure.'

There is a good discussion of the historical approach to events and facts and the changes in society. This helps us to think through the sources used, and presents a challenge to the 'Jesus Questers' who only use fragments of gospels, rather than the fullsome source material present from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This even more so when they tend to rely heavily on discredited late sources such as the Gospel of Thomas.

From this base, he moves on to examine the references to Jesus in secular histories, again adding testimony to the fact that Jesus must have been (at least) a remarkable man who caused such an amazing influence on so many so quickly. This impact is developed in the third chapter, looking at Jesus in the proclamation and tradition. Given that Paul's letters to Corinth and Thessalonians come soon after his first visit to the cities when churches were planted, the details of Jesus' life found within are illuminating. The churches already know about Jesus, the references are merely mentioned in passing, illustrating doctrine and life. This is then expanded to the other apostolic writings of Peter and John, each of whom make mention of the life of Jesus throughout.

Placing Jesus in his historical context is the task of chapter four. Here, the relationship of Jesus to the other major figures found in Luke 3 is considered - John the Baptist, Herod Antipas, Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Each of them are known from extra-biblical sources, so there can be no doubt of their existence.

Jesus in the gospels furthers the idea that any reconstruction of Jesus must contend with the details given by the very earliest churches - in continuation from his ministry. Yet most reconstructions refuse to deal with the 'deity dimension' - a belief which is highly noticeable in the earliest churches. These churches already existed before the conversion of Paul - which can be seen in what he writes to the Galatians (because he was persecuting those self-same churches) and the tradition of Jesus' resurrection which had been handed on to him and which he reminds the Corinthians he had passed on to them (1 Cor 15).

The remaining chapters are at pains to show that the gospels and Acts are reliable testimony and not something mythic or made up. His arguments are convincing, because the logic of the history is so clear. Contained within is a discussion of the process of producing the gospels - from witnesses to publication. Each gospel is seen to come from an author who was either an apostle themselves or else was connected to the apostles - Matthew himself; Mark through Peter; Luke through eye witnesses and associated with Paul; John himself. These weren't late documents produced several hundred years later (as claimed by the Da Vinci Code et al) but within the lifetime of the apostles.

This really is an excellent book. It takes a different angle and approach to the New Testament text, but is logical and encouraging. By looking at the letters in a fresh way, the history contained within is unearthed, confirming the reliability of the gospels, and all because Jesus, the Son of God really did live, die and rise. This will be a great book for anyone seeking to engage in defence and confirmation of the gospel through apologetics, or those seeking greater confirmation of the historical roots of the Christian faith. I'm just sorry it took so long to read it!

Jesus and the Logic of History is available from Amazon.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Book Review: Jesus the Son of God

Readers of this blog will know that I always appreciate Don Carson's writing. One of his more recent works, Jesus the Son of God, is published with the intention to 'foster clear thinking' on the subject. With Carson's name on it, you can be assured that the intention has been fulfilled.

In his thorough way, Carson first tackles the Son of God as a Christological Title. Highlighting all the references to 'son of God' which are concerned with Adam, Israel, Solomon, Israelites, peacemakers, and angels, he then focuses on Jesus as the Son of God. The discussion is set within the context of recent controversy regarding sonship in Trinitarian theology, some specialist volumes on particular texts, and within discussions on egalitarianism v complementarianism and reaching Muslim contexts. Within the 'Son of God' references to Jesus, he identifies various categories: 1. a catchall term; 2. as Davidic king; 3. the true Israel; 4. pre-existence of Jesus.

The second chapter then focuses in on some of these select passages - Hebrews 1 and John 5. This chapter provides a case study in Bible study, as he shows his working out of the issues raised in Hebrews 1 through consideration of Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7. It is a delight to follow the logic, and to discover something which is blatantly obvious once he has shown you it! Hebrews is the culmination of the trajectory of anticipatory passages looking forward to the identity of the Son of God kingship of David's son. He then turns to John 5, finding the exegetical roots of the Trinity as Jesus explains how he is God and like God.

Chapter Three provides the outworking of the theology, as Jesus the Son of God is considered in Christian and Muslim contexts. For Christians, there is much to consider regarding the understanding of the various 'son of God' texts. Carson urges the reader to not fall for unjustified reductionism (in only seeing son of God as meaning one little perspective of the full range of meanings), nor of reading the full range of meanings into every instance. The call comes clearly to be careful in Bible study, which will issue in evangelism and worship.

In the Muslim context, there is a discussion of the different forms of Christian communities found in Muslim countries, specifically concentrating on the 'Insider Movement.' I don't think I had heard of it before, nor really considered the issue. Carson provides a series of points relating to Bible translation and evangelism for those working in Muslim contexts. These are helpful, as they show the dangers of translation into any language, and how ideas travel from one culture to another. The final point is the clincher, though, with the argument that new translations (devoid of Jesus being the Son of God and instead described as Messiah or some such other substituted word) amputate converts from the classic creeds and councils of the church; with the need for translators, missionaries and pastors working together for the transmission of the good news in every culture.

With a particular focus on a single issue, this book will be mainly helpful for pastors, missionaries and Bible translators as they seek to communicate what is meant by Jesus being the Son of God. A relatively short book, there is much to consider long after the reading has stopped. Carson's passion for Jesus and the truth about him is clearly seen, and will live with the reader in subsequent Bible study.

Jesus the Son of God can be found on Amazonand Kindle.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Book Review: Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love

At the General Synod of 2012, the Church of Ireland, affirming that 'marriage is part of God’s creation and a holy mystery in which one man and one woman become one flesh' also committed itself to a listening process. Since then, the listening process has been developing through a series of diocesan events, as well as tripartite events where three dioceses came together for discussions. As part of my preparation for our tripartite in Claremorris back in February, I read this little volume, Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love, edited by Paul Brown.

With a range of contributors, the book focuses on a variety of angles and approaches to the subject of homosexuality. Front and centre, the introduction reminds readers of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, which is a good message for every person without exception. Everything else that is said comes within this context, particularly with regard to the fact that the gospel impacts people in two ways: 1. It tells us how we can be right with God; 2. Those who believe in Jesus Christ begin a new life. These are helpful reminders, because everyone without exception is a sinner, so everyone needs to repent, not just one specific type of person.

Kenneth Brownell kicks off chapter one by 'Learning from the past.' Prompted by the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop, he asks the question 'How have we got to this point in the western church?' Tracing the path from the first apostles to today, he counters those who argue that earlier generations of Christians previously welcomed and accepted homosexual practice. 'I will show that there is no need to revise our understanding of the church's historic position on the practice of homosexuality.' Thus he points to the early church which was 'born into a social context in which male homosexuality was tolerated and widely practiced' - yet the church fathers condemned the practice just as Paul had. Through the medieval period, the 'doctrinal consensus was maintained.' He looks at the argument that 'spiritual friendships' or 'passionate friendships' were actually homosexual relationships, but refutes the claim: 'Perhaps the difficulty is not so much with the language of friendship in the twelfth century but the shallowness of friendship in the twenty-first century.' From the reformation through the Victorian period and into the twentieth century there was still agreement by all the churches that homosexuality 'was sinful and socially destructive.' He traces the change in culture to the work of Kinsey and secularisation, but reiterates that 'Those who want to remain true to Scripture and its moral standards will have to stand fast and do so confident that they are standing where countless others have stood down the centuries.'

Peter Saunders looks at the issue of genetics. Observing the fact that 'there is no universally accepted definition [of homosexual inclination] among clinicians and behavioural scientists. There is even less agreement as to its cause.' Discussing the spectrum of sexual orientation and its causes, Saunders points out that the scientific research often has vested interests, either for promoting or shutting down findings. Yet science will not ultimately contradict God's truth in the Bible. He then explores the arguments for and against nature and nurture, none of which has been convincingly demonstrated. Rather, he points out, the gay rights lobby presupposes that what comes naturally is naturally good - in stark contrast to the Bible's worldview.

Paul Brown provides a Bible overview on sexuality and marriage in two sections. The first concentrates on the creation pattern found in Genesis 1&2 - the 'like opposite' of man and woman, seen in practical emphases on sexuality, marriage, family, it being a divine institution, and also commenting on singleness. 'Marriage is, by definition, a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Refraining from sexual intercourse is obligated on all who are not married, whether hetrosexual or homosexual.' In the second part of the chapter, he moves on to consider life in a fallen world, in which 'the results of the fall have affected every area of life including the sexual.' Polygamy and divorce may have happened in the Old Testament, but they are not God's ideal. How much more, then, the firm prohibition of homosexual practice, which is never tolerated. He then gives the reminder of how forgiveness and restoration can be found in Jesus, as we are given the power of the Holy Spirit to change.

Chapter four comes again from the pen of Paul Brown as he tackles the relevant passages on the Bible and homosexual practice. But these are not just random prooftexts - they are to be seen within the context of the previous chapter which displays God's will for marriage and sexuality. He points out that the incident of Sodom in Genesis 19 isn't just the crime of hospitality deficiency, because homosexual rape is the intention. It is to be considered in the context of the sins of the Canaanites, which God had already said to Abraham were great, but not yet to the full measure. Interestingly, the first instance is mentioned and referenced in the last reference (Jude 7). The Leviticus passages 'come in a context in which the people of Israel are strongly urged not to follow the practices of the Canaanites' - so this is a counter-cultural call. After a brief mention of Judges 19, the focus switches to Romans 1. Here Brown makes the connection between Romans 1 and Genesis 1, because of the context of creation. The dishonorable passions are contrary to nature - that is, as God intended, not just what feels natural to the individual. Sadly, the discussion of 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 were both minimal, although the point is helpfully made that homosexual practice is not the only sin - there are many sins within the list, all of which exclude people from the kingdom of God. Despite there only being a few references to homosexuality (all of which condemn the practice), the Bible isn't 'a collection of varied autonomous texts'. Rather, there is a fundmental unity and consistency within the whole Bible.

Roger Hitchings tackles the question of equality for whom? In my view, this was the weakest chapter. Using the same idea as Don Carson, a la the changing definition of tolerance, he argues that the gay lobby is actually intolerant of Christians and religious communities. His survey of which laws had changed is now hopelessly out of date, given that gay marriage is now lawful in England and Wales. There are some helpful ideas here, amongst the unhelpful.

Declan Flanagan then proposes a pastoral response in the local church. This is great! He reminders pastors and readers in general that 'Someone seeking help does not want to encounter a formula, but a person with whom they can relate.' He then sets out some steps (in an unformulaic way!) to help those helping others: 1. Know yourself, in terms of inner attitudes and questions; 2. Know and declare the truth - not in isolation, but as the whole counsel of God; 3. Acknowledge the difficulties; 4 Challenge the lies; 5. Understand the varieties of orientations; 6. Distinguish between temptation and sin; 7. Develop a carefully considered approach. This framework is useful for anyone in pastoral ministry, with any issue or struggle.

The closing chapter is a personal story. Martin Hallett of the True Freedom Trust writes of how he began to feel attraction to other men, and his new lifestyle. He writes of trying to convert a Christian to the gay lifestyle, and through that contact being converted to Christ. From there, he highlights the work of the True Freedom Trust, which helps those experiencing same-sex attraction.

This book is a good introduction to the various angles and attitudes to homosexuality, seeking to present clearly and pastorally the good news of Jesus for all. Those seeking to work out the issues will find much that is useful and helpful, and this is a volume that I will return to time and time again. Homosexuality - Christian Truth and Love is available from Amazon.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sermon: Titus 3: 8-15 Devoted to good works

Have you ever heard a cd skipping? A cd skipping? A cd skipping? Something has gone wrong and you get the same little bit of music over and over again, until you give the cd player a dunt, or else move it on to the next song. Or perhaps you’ve heard about someone going on like a record player with the needle stuck. The same thing again and again.

You might be tempted to think that’s what’s happening in our reading today. Paul keeps saying the same thing a couple of times. Can you see it in verse 8 and verse 14? Twice he talks about being devoted to good works. Is his needle stuck?

When you’re writing a letter today, paper is relatively cheap. You can pick up a whole pad for a pound, and you could write on that whole pad, pop it in an envelope and post it. That is, of course if you’re still writing letters by hand. Email is even easier. Type as much as you want; copy and paste and edit as you go, click send, and the message pops into their inbox straight away. But when Paul was writing, papyrus or parchment was more expensive. Every square inch was valuable. Words were carefully chosen. So why does Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) repeat himself on being devoted to good works, twice in quick succession? What’s so good about good works?

It’s the question the puzzled me as I studied the passage this week. But then I realised that this focus on good works is the key to the whole letter. You see, Paul has mentioned good works already - look back at 2:7, where Titus is to be a model of good works for the church; and in 2:14 where Jesus gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity and ‘to purify a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.’ (Same phrase ‘good works’ in Gk).

As we’ve seen all through the letter, the message Titus has to teach in the church in Crete is this: what you believe affects how you behave. Right belief must lead to right behaviour. In chapter one, we saw how church leaders must be people who hold to the truth and live it out. In two, the focus shifts to the home, where younger and older men and women and slaves are to live out what is consistent with sound doctrine, adorning the gospel of God’s grace. And now in chapter three, we focus on life in the world, relating to the state and to people around us.

Because the gospel is true, Paul wants Titus to ‘insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.’

Once again, Paul is showing the order. The way you do things and the order you do them in can be vital. Just think of the laundry basket. You’ve got some dirty clothes. You wouldn’t iron them, then put them in the tumble drier, then put them in the washing machine, and then wear them straight away. The order is important. So it is here. First of all: ‘those who have come to believe in God’ - so you have already done that (it’s in the past tense) - ‘may be careful to devote themselves to good works.’

Good works won’t bring you to God. But when you have believed in God (trusted him), then good works are essential. But more than that, they are also ‘excellent and profitable to everyone.’ Doing good is an excellent thing to do; and even more so because it profits everyone. Just think of the benefit to others if you do good rather than evil.

So if you have believed in God; if you’re one of his today, then the command is clear - be devoted to good works. Always be doing them; always be looking out for ways to do good. Devoted brings to mind a devoted husband or wife; constantly attending to and helping; or think of the devoted England fans, willing to pay thousands to fly to Brazil for the World Cup, now facing an early trip home.

If there are things that we are devoted to - good works - then there are also things to avoid. Look at verse 9. ‘But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.’ Good works are profitable, helpful, useful; but these quarrels and debates are unprofitable. Plenty of hot air, but not much benefit.

Causing division in the church is a serious business. We’re here for each other, to build up each other; not to start petty divisions over unimportant things. It’s so serious that Titus is told not to have anything to do with those who cause divisions.

Those verses seem to be clear. Be devoted to good works; avoid stupid controversies. They’re the main teaching point from the passage. We can all take it on board. From the start of verse 12, you might think that Paul is just winding down. There are some personal remarks that only really have to do with the situation of Titus as he opens the envelope and reads it on that day. What could there possibly be for us, two thousand years later?

But look again. We have our second occurrence of the needle being stuck. In these specifics, we get an example of how being devoted to good works will work in practice. Here’s part of what it will look like to be devoted to good works.

Have you ever seen one of those battlefield maps with the toy soldiers lining up? The commander of the army moves the regiments and plans strategy. Or maybe you play chess. You line up your pieces for maximum advantage to checkmate the opponent. That’s what Paul is doing here. He’s sending Artemas or Tychicus to Crete to replace Titus. Titus is to move to Nicopolis to be with Paul over the winter. Zenas and Apollos are on Crete, but they are to be sent on their way ‘and see that they lack nothing. And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.’

Being devoted to good works in these verses is all about supporting God’s work of mission. The good works of the church on Crete will be seen as they send Zenas and Apollos, lacking nothing. Not everyone will necessarily go away on mission, but we can all give to those who do. It seems like the Lord’s perfect timing that we are today announcing our new mission partnership.

But being devoted to good works is something that we need to learn. It doesn’t come naturally. But when it comes as a response to all that God has given us; when we realise that it’s all his; and when we realise we can make a difference for others, then how could we not?

What is it you’re devoted to? What is the pattern of your life? Paul urges Titus to insist on being devoted to good works. We all need to learn how to do it. We need to be brought from our selfishness to service. This week, ask God to open your eyes to see the ways you can do good, for those near at hand; and for those serving the Lord far from home. It’s not easy. It’ll not come easily. But God gives us something that will help us do it. As Paul closes: ‘Grace be with you all.’ Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Sunday 22nd June 2014.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 3: 1-14 Knowing Christ

I’ll never forget my scariest pastoral visit so far. It wasn’t in this parish. I was a student, sent out to do some visiting in another parish. The rector had warned me about a particularly fearsome dog. It would attack if you managed to get between it and its owner. Off I went, knees knocking and rang the doorbell. Woof, woof, woof! The dog had the loudest bark I’ve ever heard. It meant business. It looked hungry. So when the man opened the door, the dog made a move towards me and had to be held back. I edged my way into the house and we got to the kitchen table. All of a sudden, I became aware of a puddle of drool forming on my knee, as the dog was positioned between my legs, ready to pounce. The family realised, and had to drag the dog away to another room until I was safely away.

For some, (and for me that day), dogs are scary animals. Is that why Paul says in verse 2 to look out for the dogs? The fear of dogs should be nothing compared to this warning that Paul gives here in Philippians 3. There is a threat to the young Christians, but it doesn’t come from canines. They’re not to be alarmed by alsatians or petrified by poodles. Rather, the dogs mentioned here are people.

You see, Paul doesn’t give three separate warnings in the verse. Rather, it’s one warning given three times. The dogs are the evildoers are those who mutilate the flesh. Paul seems to be echoing Psalm 22:6, which we heard earlier - the repetition of dogs, evildoers and flesh mutilators (piercing in Psalm 22).

So who are these people, and what’s the problem? Paul is warning about the Judaizers - those who insist that in order to be a Christian, you first have to be a Jew. Or in other words, to be a real true Christian, you have to be circumcised. Believe in Jesus, yes, but you also have to keep the Jewish law. Jesus plus something else.

In our reading tonight, Paul shows that Jesus is enough. That we don’t need Jesus plus anything. That, as he says in verse 3: ‘we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.’

You see, Paul had had reason for confidence in the flesh. If being good enough was all you needed, then Paul was in with a shot. If obeying the Jewish law was the entry requirements, Paul was in the top class, the model student. In verse 5, he spells out his spiritual CV. Here are the things Paul could boast about: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ He’s a purebred Jew. He’s religious. He’s as good as you can get. He’s top of the class.

It’s all so impressive. Yet it’s as if everything that he has just talked about; all of his reasons for boasting; every reason he had to put confidence in the flesh; all that looks so much like a gain - now, Paul views it very differently. Look at verse 7: ‘But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.’ It’s as if Paul is doing his accounts. He tots up all his profit, but then changes the heading of the column and declares it all loss.

It’s all loss compared to just one thing. Only one thing outweighs all those other things he was previously proud of - ‘because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Compared to knowing Jesus, everything else is rubbish, except that isn’t strong enough: doggy dodo.

After all those years of striving for righteousness - being right with God - through his own efforts under the law; Paul now realises that it’s rubbish, loss, worthless. The only thing that matters is gaining Christ, being found in him, with a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.

We can’t work for our salvation. We can’t earn it. We must receive it as a gift, by faith. This is the unchanging message of the good news of Jesus. Circumcision isn’t an issue for us now. No one is insisting that we have to be circumcised in order to be real true Christians. But there are other issues that some people try to insist on. The use of the KJV Bible. A particular mode of baptism. The way you should dress when you come to church. The way you should speak to God. I’m sure you might be able to come up with more. But in all these issues, Paul says that your own efforts are like a poopscoopa. The only thing that matters is knowing Christ.

And how do we do that? How do we know Christ? Verse 10 gives us a picture of what it means to know Christ. ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection...’ - we all want that, don’t we? The power of Jesus’ resurrection, in us, helping us, equipping us. And perhaps we want to stop there. But that’s prosperity teaching, not bible teaching. Because Paul continues - ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

The Christian life is one of Christ’s power, but also following in the path of Christ’s sufferings. We’re called to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him. It’s the path of Christian discipleship, because it is the way to share in his resurrection.

It’s a path, because we all, no matter how long we’ve been believers, there’s still some more way to go. Even the apostle Paul says that he isn’t there yet, that he hasn’t been made perfect. Through the rest of our life, we’re to follow this path, knowing Jesus better every day. We press on to make it our own, because Jesus has made us his own.

Knowing that Jesus has made us his, we can press on to receive these things for ourselves. We press on, forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what lies ahead - the upward call of God. When I was learning to drive, I can remember one day trying to reverse while looking out the front window. My instructor (a patient man who aged greatly during that experience), said that you wouldn’t think of looking out the back window when you were going forward. You look the way you’re going.

Paul would say the very same. Forget about any achievements. Forget any past performance that you think might impress people or God. Instead, look forward and look up. Like athletes, strain forward for the prize. Keep going.

The Judaizers wanted to add something to Jesus. Many want to try to bring something to the table, even just a little bit of effort. But Jesus plus anything means that Jesus isn’t everything. I wonder what your basis for being right with God is tonight. Is it your works? Your goodness? Or is it simply Christ. Nothing else counts. Nothing else matters. All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 15th June 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ghost Car

Growing up, my favourite computer console games were the driving ones. I never went in for fighting, and the football ones seemed too complicated. At least with the driving games, you could put the car on automatic and just concentrate on speeding and steering. But there was one aspect of those games that got a little frustrating, and that was the ghost car.

The ghost car appeared in single player mode. It was a representation of your fastest ever lap of the course. Every time you played, the ghost car was whizzing round the track, edging ahead, annoying you as you tried to beat your best time and get ahead. It pushed you to your limits, encouraging you to set a new record.

Having grown up playing those games, I found that when I started driving, it was as if I always had a ghost car in my mind, if not my eyes. Regular journeys would have a 'best time' - from home to getting parked at university in Belfast; from home to Tesco; later, from home to Newtownstewart and so on. I wasn't flying. i wasn't breaking speed limits, but I was always comparing the time it was taking with the best ever time on that journey.

Another regular journey was from Kesh to Newtownstewart. On a Monday evening I went to the Fountain youth centre for youth fellowship. My journey home was another 'ghost car' run. Could I shave a second or two off my time? This particular night, ten years to the day, it was a good, clear run. I came by Ederney, Lack, Drumquin, past Baronscourt, when I took a sharp right hand corner a little too quickly. Two wheels left the ground, but by the grace of God I didn't turn over, and I came back to solid ground shaken, but fine. It was the scariest moment of my life. Thankfully no damage was done. I escaped, while many other young drivers don't.

The very next day, ten years ago tomorrow, an email arrived that was to chart these past ten years and, with God's help, the rest of my life. It was an email containing a letter from Bishop Harold, Bishop of Down and Dromore, informing me that he was recommending my for training for ordination. How strange the timing - a fearful experience one night, and the next day a confirmation of my future.

Those events have been etched on my mind. Ten years ago today. So much has happened since then - college, engagement, marriage, ordination, ministry in Dundonald and Fermanagh - and hopefully much more still to come. My driving has changed. It's slower and safer. The ghost car has been consigned to the scrap heap. I'm better off without it.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sermon: Titus 3: 1-7 Heirs of Hope

When I was younger, I loved to do spot the difference puzzles. You would have two pictures, side by side, but there were some subtle differences. If it was a picture of a park, there might be three ducks in one picture and only two in the other; or the little boy’s kite might have disappeared. Sometimes you had to look really carefully to see what was different.

Sometimes it’s not very easy to see what has changed. For some of the men, perhaps your wife has returned from the hairdresser and they ask you what you think; and can you notice what’s different or what they’ve had done. Is it a new colour, slightly shorter, more or less wavy? Or is it a trick question?

In other situations, though, it’s easy to spot the difference. With a family occasion, you maybe see someone you haven’t seen for a while and the change is instantly noticeable - if they’ve been on holiday; lost or gained weight; or for nephews and nieces, the inevitable ‘look at how tall you’re getting...’ It’s easy to see the change and spot the difference.

In our reading today, Paul gives us two pictures of how to live. He sets them side by side, but the difference is very easy to spot. In fact, the two ways of life are so different to one another, it’s like comparing day and night.

Now we’re coming near to the end of our series, but it’s always good to remind you where we are and what’s happening. Paul is writing to Titus, his colleague, who is on Crete, teaching the church and appointing leaders. The big theme of the letter is ‘truth which accords with godliness’ - or in other words, what we believe affects what we do. All the way through, Paul has been showing us that we need to believe the truth, and then live it out. We saw that in chapter 1 in the church leadership - wanting men who hold to the truth; and in chapter two in the home, where younger and older men and women each have their own specific roles and application.

Here in chapter three, Paul focuses in on life in the world. In verses 1 and 2, he shows us what living as a Christian will look like. It’s something they already know, because he says ‘Remind them...’ So let’s hear and heed this reminder, even if it seems like you’ve heard it all before. ‘Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show courtesy to everyone.’

Here’s what we need to do as Christians. Here’s how we should be living as we go about our daily business, meeting friends and neighbours and enemies. It’s an attractive, positive way of life. Good citizens, good neighbours, good living.

But this is like the ‘after’ feature of one of those home makeover programmes. There used to be one on a few years back called ‘How Clean is your House?’ Kim and Aggie would go into a home that had been neglected over the years, clean it up and get it sorted out. Life as a Christian is like the after shot - the good, indeed the best way to live.

But just as a spotless home doesn’t just happen, neither will a blameless life. Instead, if we’re left to ourselves, if we go our own way, life will look very different. I wonder can you spot the difference when we get to verse 3: ‘foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.’ It’s the exact opposite of verses 1 and 2. It explains the way the world is, as people live out these very ‘values’ (if that’s the right word). It’s easy to look out at other people and see these things in them. But for the Christian, it’s important to remember that we are no better, because we were once like that as well. Look again at the start of verse 3: ‘For we ourselves were once...’

The Christian life is one of change. I used to be like that, but now I have changed. But how do we jump from one to the other? How can we move from living out verse 3 to living the 1&2 way? We simply can’t do it by ourselves. By nature, we are enslaved. We can’t escape by ourselves. Just like the people in those houses who needed Kim and Aggie, so we need to have outside help.

That’s where verse 4 comes in. This is where the change is found. ‘But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.’

Before God works in our life, we’re in verse 3. We can’t be saved by works of righteousness, because we can’t do any. We’re slaves to passions and pleasures. We can’t do anything good that will earn favour with God. That’s why God steps in. Jesus, the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, and saved us according to his mercy. Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve.

You see, our sins deserve punishment, but instead God gives us mercy. Instead of wrath, we receive rebirth and renewal - new life by the Holy Spirit. We are reborn and made new, so that we can live by the Spirit, instead of following our sinful desires.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we remember how God gave the Holy Spirit to every believer. He lives within us, giving us life, confirming in us his grace, helping us to live for God, and reminding us of the hope of eternal life. We have been given the Holy Spirit, not miserly, not in a small measure, but richly, abundantly, fully.

Some people think that the church is all about do’s and don’ts. At first glance, that’s what this passage looks as if it’s doing. Don’t be like verse 3. Do be like verse 1 and 2. Do, do, do. It’s like trying to drive a car that has run out of fuel. You could be terribly inspirational, but the car can’t do it. The Christian life is fuelled by the message of grace - here’s what God has already done. You have been saved. You have been justified. You have this great hope. You have the Holy Spirit living inside you. So live it out.

At times we fail. At times we don’t do it as we should. That’s why we need the reminder. Keep going this way; keep obeying the Spirit. And as you do so, you and those around you will be able to spot the difference. You’re not the person you used to be.

As we look at this spot the difference, I wonder which of the two pictures is the likeness of your life. Do you find yourself in verse 3? Enslaved, hating and hated? You don’t like how things are; you want to change, but you don’t know how. Look to Christ and find the grace and mercy he provides. He can make you new through his work on the cross, and give you the Holy Spirit to change you.

Or maybe you’re already a believer. How are you getting on with verses 1&2? Do your workmates or friends see something different in your life? We’re not asking you to pull your socks up, to try a bit harder. Rather, it’s a reminder of what God has done, as you live out the good news. He can make us change, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 8th June 2014.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sermon: Romans 12: 1-8 Living Sacrifices

Choosing the right gift can be a bit of a struggle sometimes. Trying to find the perfect present might be your idea of a good day’s shopping or crafting; but I’m not that good at selecting the right thing to give. Gift cards are definitely the way to go - simple, handy, and the person can choose what they want themselves.

Now I know it’s always dangerous for a minister to talk about money, but I wonder how you decided on your gift for today? I know that some of us are finding things difficult - you find that there’s some month left at the end of your money rather than some money left over at the end of the month. But if you were able, how did you decide? Perhaps you remembered what you had given last year and went for the same. Maybe you went for a little increase. It’ll give you some satisfaction to know that your giving is in line with inflation.

But when we read what the apostle Paul has to say to the church in Rome about an offering, we all need to re-evaluate. You see, God wants more than just a pound in the plate on a Sunday. He wants more than whatever is in our bank balance. God wants us - the whole sum of ourselves. Every little bit of us.

Now you might have noticed that we’ve parachuted into the middle of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Over the past few weeks we’ve been working our way through his letter to Titus, but today, as a special for Gift Day, we’ve found ourselves in Romans chapter 12. You know the way you sometimes get the ‘Previously on...’ in TV programmes? Here is ‘Previously in Romans: Paul writes to the church in Rome about the gospel, the power of God for salvation.

It’s all about how God’s wrath is against all, because all have sinned. But the good news is that we can be justified through the free gift of Jesus, his death & resurrection, received by faith. This is the ‘mercies of God’ Paul refers to under the therefore - it’s because of God’s mercy that Paul makes his appeal.

‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (1) In light of everything that God has done for you; the way in which he hasn’t treated you as your sins deserve; the way he has welcomed you in - offer not just your money, but yourself as a living sacrifice. The Christians in Rome, whether Jews or Gentiles knew all about sacrifices. Every small g god in Rome had sacrifices offered to it. The Romans had a whole gaggle of gods - say you were going to war, you offered a bull to Mars the god of war. Looking for love? Cupid was the one for you. And so on. Sacrifices were dead animals.

But here Paul says that life as a Christian is to be a living sacrifice, offered to God, but not dead. And, as someone once said, the problem with living sacrifices is that they tend to try to crawl off the altar. So what will it look like to be a living sacrifice, offered to God?

When we were growing up, we never got jelly. It was never made in our house. But for special occasions, granny made jelly. She had a special mould, and the jelly would be set in the same shape every time. A friend of mine has a family tradition of a jelly rabbit for birthdays. The pressure from the world is to fit in, to be made like their mould, to be conformed. But offering ourselves to God, as living sacrifices is to not be conformed, but to be transformed. To march to the beat of a different drum.

We’re transformed ‘by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (2) We don’t take our lead from the world around us. We listen to God, and have our minds renewed, made new, as we discover his will for our lives. It’s like changing the channel on the radio in the car. Perhaps if we’re discouraged about not seeing transformation in our lives, it’s because we’re not being renewed? Whose are the voices we’re listening to? How are we actively seeking to listen to God?

Paul goes on to show what the renewing of our mind will lead to. Here is what being a living sacrifice will look like. And initially, it’s not what we might expect. You might think that Paul will give a list of impressive and difficult things to do. Stuff like praying for enemies, obeying the government and things like that. But the first example of a renewed mind might take us by surprise.

Look at verse 3: ‘For by the grace of God given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.’ One of the ways that the pressure of the world comes upon us is to think highly of ourselves. To constantly compare ourselves with others. To always be thinking what others think of us. To be self-obsessed. For most people, we are our own biggest fan. We naturally inflate the good in ourselves and forget the bad.

But the renewed mind leads us to be realistic. Not to think too highly of ourselves, but to see ourselves as God sees us. Tim Keller says that it’s not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. (The freedom of self-forgetfulness).

The reason this is so important is because we are one in Christ, in the body of Christ. Without giving Lynsey traumatic flashbacks to first year anatomy, think of all the different bits that make up your body. Eyes, ears, hands, feet, and that’s before you get into the complicated internal bits - heart, lungs, bones and muscle and all the rest. All those bits come together and work together, In the same way, we aren’t lone ranger Christians. We are one body in Christ - in this place. We belong to each other. We work together.

The church isn’t all about you. It isn’t all about me. This church family, this body of Christ is made up of all of us together, working together. We need each other. Are you playing your part in the body of Christ?

You see, as we give ourselves as living sacrifices, we realise (with Abraham) that God will provide. God has already given us grace gifts for the upbuilding of the body. Each of us are gifted - in the way that God has made us - to play our part and do the thing that only you can do. Paul lists some of them here (and others in several other letters) but really it’s an infinite list. Prophecy, ministering (which is serving), reaching, exhorting (encouraging), giving, leading, compassion.

You see, we are not here by accident. God has called us to be here as his expression of the body of Christ in this place to love and serve together as we reach out. It’s not just the rector or the vestry or the MU branch secretary; all of us have a part to play. I’d love to chat with you and discover how God has made you, and what you can share with the body.

It’s counter-cultural to give selflessly. It’s counter-cultural to belong to a church. And it’s counter-cultural to lay yourself on the altar, as a living sacrifice, giving yourself to God for him to use you as he wants. This gift day, as you marvel at God’s mercy, give more than just an envelope. Give yourself. Every bit of you. For all that remains. Let today be the day when we move forward together, giving and serving and loving one with another, for God the giver. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the annual Gift Day in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st June 2014.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sermon: Titus 2: 11-15 God's grace

I wonder if you’ve ever received one of those mailings which declares that you have been chosen at random from a draw you didn’t enter to win a guaranteed £50,000. If it doesn’t go straight into the bin, you might wonder, what’s the catch? You read the small print to discover you have to buy something from a catalogue, or send a small deposit to continue to see what you’ve actually won. The new version is the spam email from an African country where if you give them your bank account details to help them move a small fortune then you’ll be handsomely rewarded. Except you realise quickly that the only movement will be the money out of your account, and delete the emails.

Things seem too good to be true. We’re brought up to see that you don’t get anything for nothing. We have to work hard for what we’ve got; and to make sure that you pay your way. Just think of the spectacle of two ladies fighting over which one of them is going to pay for their morning coffee. We can’t quite accept anything for free.

When it comes to God, we expect to have to work hard to become acceptable to him. We expect there to be a check list of things to do so that he will love us - pray, read your Bible, give to charity, avoid temptation and all the rest. And last Sunday, as we looked at the passage immediately before our reading today, we found lots of things to do. There were specific instructions, a teaching curriculum for different groups of people in the church - older & younger men and women. Maybe you went away last week thinking - finally - something to do or something to try. So you tried to be more self-controlled or less addicted to wine or whatever your bit was. But as the week went on and life happened, with stress at home or work, you discovered that it’s not easy to be self-controlled. The more you tried, the harder it became. The more aware you were of failure. Well, don’t give up.

This morning we have the key to the Christian life; the secret that brings peace and energy for our walk with God. It’s the motivation to live in the way that we saw last week and it’s found in our reading this morning. The apostle Paul is writing to Titus, a church leader on the island of Crete. He’s spelling out what Titus needs to do as he teaches the church and appoints leaders. Paul knows that what we believe affects how we behave. So Paul is urging Titus to teach the truth, which accords with godliness. When we believe the truth, we’ll show it in our lives.
And here is the truth. Here is the reason why we are to live out the truth. ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.’ Salvation has been offered to all sorts of people, and it’s entirely free. Grace is God’s gift, undeserved, but gladly and graciously given. There is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace, just receive it as a gift. Now I don’t know if ‘Baptism presents’ is something that happens (and if you’re a guest of the family today, don’t panic if you haven’t brought anything!), but imagine you give a gift to Erin today. What would you think if Catherine brought out her chequebook and asked how much she owed you for it? You’d say, no, it’s a gift, it’s free. Please just take it.

Now imagine that you’re Erin. You’ve received so many beautiful gifts. If she could talk, I’m sure she would express her thanks and wonder and amazement. We have nieces who are a little bit older, and when they receive a new t-shirt, they’re amazed that they got something. They want to tell everyone that auntie soandso gave me this!

When we receive salvation as a free gift, it will change how we view God. We want to do what pleases him; we don’t want to do those things which harm our relationship with him. And look at the way in which grace works in this. ‘For the grace of God has appeared... training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions...’ Some of us may remember back to the mid-1980s, after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. Unionists were dismayed at that agreement. Across the province banners displayed the message: ‘Ulster says no.’ Grace prompts us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions. If God has been so gracious to us, we don’t want to carry on doing those things that separate us from him.

But grace helps us to do more than just say no. Grace also helps us to say yes to other things. There used to be an advertising slogan: ‘The bank that likes to say ‘yes’’. As we say no to ungodliness, so grace helps us to say yes to live ‘self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age.’ The types of things we find in the first part of chapter two. You see, it’s not that we have to do those things in order for God to love us. Rather, because God loves us, we’ll want to do these things.

And all the more, because God’s grace has given us something to look forward to. Verse 13. We’re waiting for our blessed hope. So often, waiting is seen as a negative, whether it’s waiting on a bus which doesn’t seem to come, or waiting in the doctor’s surgery. But we’re waiting for our blessed hope - the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

It’s more like the eager anticipation of preparing the nursery for the arrival of a new baby. Or counting down the days until a long lost relative arrives home on holiday from Australia. We’re in the in between period - in between the appearing of God’s grace, something which has already happened; and the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

You see, when Paul writes those words, he isn’t referring to two people. It isn’t ‘our great God; and then also our Saviour Jesus Christ.’ No, Jesus Christ is our great God and Saviour. The first appearing of God’s grace was when Jesus appeared. And that grace appeared because of what Jesus accomplished when he was on earth. Look at verse 14. Here’s what Jesus came to do the first time, as he demonstrated his grace; as he gave freely to us:

‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.’ Jesus gave himself as he died on the cross, taking our sins upon him. Removing all the wrong things that we have done. Giving us a fresh start, from all the ways we have broken God’s laws. Those sins are gone. We are redeemed, bought back by Jesus, the price has been paid.

As we receive this good news; as we accept Jesus to be our Saviour, so we discover that he loves us just as we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay that way. His purpose is to purify his people to be zealous for good works. There’s an order there - redeemed by Jesus, and then zealous for good works. Christianity isn’t about what we do for God. It’s about what God has done for us. Our good works are a response to God’s grace.

As we come to baptise Erin today, we are expressing God’s grace toward her. As she grows and discovers God’s grace, our prayer is that she will accept it for herself, and live a life of love in response.

But what about you? Have you experienced this grace of God for yourself? That Jesus did it all for you? The salvation is offered to you freely? Let today be the day that you surrender to him; that you stop trying to work to earn his favour, and instead receive it for what it is - a gift, freely offered and freely received.

And if you have already received this grace gift - what difference is it making to your life? If we believe in the God of grace, and have received the grace of God for ourselves - does it show in how we treat others? Has it made an impact in teaching us to say no and yes? In other words, is grace really amazing to us?

What we believe affects how we behave. The message of God’s grace is the heart of the Christian life. And that’s why Paul insists on this message being taught and declared. Nothing else will change us. Nothing else will motivate us. Except this: Jesus loves you and gave himself for you. Praise the Lord.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 25th May 2014.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 2: 12-30 Shining for Jesus

I wonder if you’ve taken some time to think about the stars recently. Now, before your mind turns to film stars or pop stars, I’m talking about the stars in the night sky. As you probably know, we have two wee dogs and every night as part of our bedtime routine, I venture outside with them, in rain, hail or snow.

After the security lights have come on and then gone off again, I’m to be found staring up, amazed at the little lights shining across the sky. Seemingly you can get an app for your phone which works out where you are, what direction you’re facing, and will tell you what the different stars and constellations are. Amazing!

The stars are always there. They don’t just arrive at night. But it’s at night that we get to see them, we notice them, because they’re bright against the darkness of the night sky. The light is bright, it stands out when surrounded by darkness.

Or think of a room in pitch darkness. You light one little candle, and it’s the light your eyes are drawn to. The rest of the room might be black, but your eyes are focused on the light of that candle; which stands out; such a contrast.

Or think of the roads. One of my pet hates is the driver who drives along in mist or fog; or in heavy rain, and they don’t turn any lights on. They think that they can see ok, but they also have to be seen! We need them to have lights on so that we can see when they’re coming and not drive out in front of them.

We’re all familiar with lights shining out in the dark; standing out from the darkness all around. That’s the image that Paul gives us as he writes the next section of his letter to the church in Philippi. You remember that Jesus said that his disciples are the light of the world (Matt 5:14). Here, Paul says that Christians are to shine like lights (stars) in the world, among a crooked and twisted generation.

Tonight we’ll see what it means to shine for Jesus in a dark world. And it all comes in the context of being saved by Jesus. Did you notice the ‘therefore’ at the start of verse 12? Hopefully you’re asking what it’s there for. Last time we were here, we saw the humiliation and exaltation of the Lord Jesus - giving up all he had in order to love and serve others, even going as far as the death of the cross. Because Jesus took the lowest place, God has given him the highest place. But Paul had pointed to this as an illustration of his appeal for Christians to live together in love: not looking to your own interests but those of others.

Because of the example of Jesus, therefore Paul says: ‘as you have always obeyed... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling...’ Notice what he doesn’t say: ‘work for your own salvation...’ or ‘work up your own salvation...’ We can’t work for our salvation. It’s entirely a gift, because of what Jesus has done. But when we become a Christian, we need to work out our salvation. What does it look like to live as a Christian? How do I make decisions in my life? What does God want me to do?

Work out your own salvation - but thankfully we are not alone, not left on our own to try it ourselves. Verse 13 quickly follows verse 12: ‘for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ We’re working it out as God works in us. God shows us what to will and to do, so that we stand out like stars.

Look at what Paul focuses on in verse 14. ‘Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish...’ Perhaps one of the things that marks our society is the need to grumble and complain. Stephen Nolan on Radio Ulster (and BBC NI) seems to have made a career from exploiting that characteristic. Moaning seems to be the order of the day.

To not complain or question or answer back is the mark of difference Paul highlights. In a dark world, in a crooked and twisted generation, someone who is different will stand out. If you were with us this morning, we were thinking of how we are the only Bible some people will ever read. Our reaction to those around us; as well as our reaction to our church should make us stand out.

If we’re grumbling and complaining, you can imagine your neighbour thinking to herself - they’re always at their church, but they never stop complaining about it. I wouldn’t want to go there. It only seems to make them more miserable!

Instead, as we hold fast (and, as some translations add, holding out) the word of life, we will be seen as different and shine for all to see.

Paul then shows us two shining examples. He highlights two people known to the Philippians, so that they can see what shining for Jesus looks like in real life. The first one is Timothy, who will be coming to visit Philippi. He stands out in verse 20. Paul says: ‘For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.’

That doesn’t say much for Paul’s companions, does it? Everyone else with Paul isn’t really worried about the Philippians. They aren’t even all that bothered about what Jesus might be interested in. But not Timothy. He is interested in them, and also for Jesus.

Have you ever talked to someone who asks how you’re keeping, but you know they don’t really care about the answer? Not Timothy. He cares for the churches, because he cares for Jesus. He was there with Paul when the first Philippians became Christians. And since that moment, Timothy has been interested in them.

Are you shining like Timothy - concerned for others and not just yourself? Putting Jesus and his concerns ahead of your own? Could others look at you and say that there is no one like you, who cares for other people?

We’re also shown another ‘star’ in Epaphroditus. Eppy was one of the Philippians, sent to Paul with a gift of money. This letter is, in part, a thank you note from Paul, which Eppy is bringing back to Philippi. You see, there was no Royal Mail back then. These letters in the New Testament were hand delivered.

But when Eppy had made it to Paul in Rome, he had taken very seriously ill. So serious, in fact, that he almost died. But God showed mercy, healed him, and now Paul is almost glad to send him home. But look at the language Paul uses. In verse 25, Eppy is ‘my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier.’ He is to be received with joy and honoured ‘for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.’ (30).

I wonder are we willing to take some risks for the work of Christ? Or do we shy away from anything too serious, too committed, too much like standing out and shining for Jesus? As we work out what it means to be a Christian; as God works in our lives, we might just find the power to stand out and shine, each of us in our corner. Consider Timothy, and consider again your priorities. Consider Epaphroditus, and take a risk. Shine for Jesus.

This sermon was preached in the Brooke Memorial Hall, Brookeborough on Sunday 18th May 2014.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: Titus 2: 1-10 Living the Gospel

Tomorrow morning, the alarm will go off, and you’ll get up and get ready for school. You’ll walk or get dropped or get the bus to school. You get into the classroom and have your pencil case and your books all ready. What kinds of things might you be learning about tomorrow?

Have you ever thought about this: How does the teacher know what to teach you? When they are planning your lessons, how do they know what to cover? Do they just make it up, whatever they want to do? Can you imagine a primary school teacher who only liked doing maths, so for all the time in school, you only ever learned about maths? It wouldn’t be very good for your spelling or your reading or learning about art or history or anything else, would it?

To make sure that you don’t get a teacher like that there is such a thing as a curriculum. Now that’s a big word - does anyone know what that might be? ... It’s the things that you should be taught. And whether you knew it or not, your teacher has to follow the Northern Ireland curriculum. There are things you have to be taught by Key Stage 1 (P4), Key Stage 2 (P7), Key Stage 3 (Year 10), Key Stage 4 (Year 12). So every day, in all the different classes in your school, the teachers are following some kind of plan.

All the way through school, you’ll be able to go from not being able to write to being able to do joined up writing. Going from not knowing the times tables to being able to count and multiply and divide. You’ll learn lots about science and nature and the world around us. How to play cricket or hockey or any of the other sports you do. All because your teacher is following the plan.

During this term, we are reading about a church leader called Titus. He had been left on an island called Crete - has anyone been to Crete? You might have been on holiday there, but Titus is there to lead the church. And the work he has to do is teaching. Look at verse 1. What does Paul (who is writing) tell Titus?

‘You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.’ Paul says that the work of a church leader is to teach the people in the church. And what is it he has to teach? Not reading writing and arithmetic - but what is in accord with sound doctrine.

Now if something is in accord, that just means that it’s in agreement. So imagine that you had fallen out with a friend. But then you get back together again - you’re in accord, you’re friends again, you’re happy and agreeing together.

So what Titus has to teach is what agrees with sound doctrine, with the good news about Jesus. So when you hear the good news, this is what you should do - here’s how we need to live. So here’s the curriculum for the church. Here’s what has to be taught; what we all need to learn.

Now, who is in Key Stage 1? 2? 3? 4? There are different things that you have to learn, depending on who you are. You wouldn’t expect to sit a German or French GCSE exam on your first day in P1! There are different things for different groups to learn. Paul divides it up into older men, older women, younger women and young men.

I’ll let you decide which of the categories you fall into- and have a look at what you’re meant to be doing. But the thing to notice is that they’re all very similar. Each of them is about self-control, being careful how you live and what you do. Not just going wild. Not just doing anything at all. Being self-controlled.

You see, the place where Titus was, everyone just did what they wanted. Nobody cared about anything. They even took pride in the fact that they were all: ‘always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’

This was how they lived their lives. But if they’re now on Jesus’ team, then they need to do things the way Jesus wants. They need to hear and learn and do what Jesus wants.

For older men (not looking at anyone!) that means being temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled and sound in faith, love and endurance. Being the type of man that everyone will look up to and respect. Being the type of man that younger men will want to be like.

Older women, are to be reverent, not slanderers (not going around gossiping and speaking evil about others, spreading rumours), not addicted to much wine, but rather teaching what is good. Because it’s the older women who train up and encourage the younger women - older women, are you encouraging the next generation of women in the congregation? Younger women, here’s what you should be seeing and copying from the older women - how to love husbands and children; how to be self-controlled and pure, how to be busy at home, and kind, and subject to husbands.

Young men, there’s just one thing, but this is a big thing - to be self-controlled. To not get carried away by passions and desires. To be careful to watch over yourself. Titus, the church leader, is to be the example of this.

Slaves - or the equivalent in our day, workers - are to be honest, not stealing and not talking back.

There’s something for everyone to work on here. No one could say that we’re already doing this perfectly. Each of us need to hear God’s word about God’s way and God’s plan, and do it.

But the question is why. Why should we be doing these things? The immediate answer is because God says so. But God is good, and he also gives us three reasons why we should do these things. We’ll look at them quickly. In the reading (which you have in front of you), can you find the first so? (Not we’re not talking about sew - to stitch) So? It’s there in verse 5: ‘So that no one will malign the word of God.’ The first reason we’re to do these things is so that no one says anything against the word of God.

The second so? ‘So that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.’ (8). People might not like the church, might not like Christians, but if we are doing good, then they’ll have nothing bad to say about us.

And the third so? ‘So that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.’ Imagine you have a school disco coming up. There's a boy or girl you want to dance with or you want them to like you. Would you turn up in your old clothes? No, you'd want to make a good impression. You'd wear something new, something fancy. You might wear perfume or makeup or aftershave. You try to be attractive.

When we hear the good news of Jesus, about God our Saviour, and we believe in Jesus, something must change. We want to turn away from our sins and live the way God wants us to live. Other people will watch us to see how we live. To see if believing in Jesus really makes a difference. You might be the only Bible some people will ever read. You might be the only Christian they know. And they are watching carefully.

She says that Jesus is her Saviour - is it true? Does Jesus make a difference? He goes to church on Sundays - but how does he live the rest of the week? Does it change him?

God has given the curriculum for the church. The teaching plan is laid out. Will we hear and obey?

This sermon was preached at the Family Service in Aghavea Church on Sunday 18th May 2014.