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.