Monday, 6 August 2018

St Paul Sermon Series Week 4 - Joy's sermon on Grace, Justification and Faith 'Galatians 2. 15-end Paul, Augustine, Luther and Wesley'

Continuing the sermon series on some of the key teachings of St Paul, this morning’s task is to consider Paul’s themes of faith, justification and grace also seen through the eyes of Augustine, Luther and Wesley.
Firstly a reminder of St Paul’s context: he would have been an observer of the impact of Jesus’ life and teaching (hence his persecutions of the new Jewish/Christian sects) but not a follower of Jesus until after his dramatic encounter on the Damascus Road.  His sources for his writing would have been discussions with some of those who were disciples and followers of Jesus, together with the Hebrew Scriptures, of which he was a diligent scholar.  The Apostle Peter was a close associate of Paul, as referenced in the letters and also the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Let us also note that many of Paul’s letters are some of the earliest produced Christian writings.  This letter to the Galatians is believed to have been written between the late 40s and early 50s CE, whereas the earliest Gospel, that of St Mark, is believed to have been written in the mid to late 50s CE.
In the reading we heard earlier Paul begins with a clear statement of his central theological affirmation: “ … we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”.  A simple enough statement we may think, but for the early Jewish Christians, somewhat difficult to embrace because for Jews the mark of their covenant with God was their diligence in keeping the law and rituals such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and the food laws.  So what was to happen when Gentiles (that is anyone not a Jew) came into the Christian community?  Should they too be circumcised and keep the law?
Paul’s answer is an emphatic no: ‘we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.’ 
During the fourth century Augustine of Hippo was a foremost scholar and intellect and is regarded even now as one of the most influential theologians of Christian thought, especially concerning his in-depth study of Paul’s writings. 
Augustine’s view of salvation follows from the starting point that people are sinful and unable to respond to God of their own accord, therefore God must initiate salvation.  It is Augustine who developed the doctrine of ‘original sin’; we cannot contribute anything to the process of making ourselves acceptable to God, so justification for Augustine is entirely God’s work, it is God who makes people righteous. This righteousness is a gracious gift of God, and Augustine believed, becomes part of the inner person.  There is a change in our nature as it were, which continues throughout life, until we reach our final home in heaven where perfection awaits.
This approach distinguishes Augustine from Luther and the Protestant Reformers, who understood justification to describe God’s activity of attributing or imputing righteousness to sinful humanity as the ground of acceptance.
When coming to the theology of Martin Luther we need to recognize we have jumped a good few hundred years from the fourth century to the end of the fifteenth century, and during this time the Christian Church (which we now call the Roman Catholic Church) had developed belief and practice in many ways.  One of these shifts was towards the practice of associating salvation with good works, so essentially you could earn your way in to God’s good books as it were by what you did, including paying the Church to have priests pray for your soul (the practice of selling indulgences).
Luther diligently studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans, and concluded also that through the grace of God, people receive the gift of faith which justifies them.
He explained justification this way: all have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is only necessary to believe this as an act of faith. Being made right with God cannot be achieved by any work, law, or merit.  Faith alone justifies us.  This is the essence of Luther’s theology of salvation.  Moreover, the faith of the believer is personal, it embraces trust in the promises of God and it unites the believer to Christ.
Faith in the righteousness of Christ then attributes righteousness to the believer for the forgiveness of sins; note the difference with Augustine who said faith imparts righteousness.
Fast forward to the eighteenth century and John Wesley. For Wesley (The Essential Works of John Wesley 2011), salvation is inextricably linked with faith. In its broadest sense, Wesley describes faith as a new way of seeing: by which we perceive the previously unseen spiritual world, and become convinced of God and his work.
For Wesley, justification is the moment in which a person is pardoned of their sins and reconciled to God: “It is the forgiveness of all our sins.” The moment of justification brings about a “real” personal change: which includes feelings of peace, hope, and joy; the reception of the Holy Spirit as a confirming witness to justification; a sense of “the love of God shed abroad” in the heart; and, most importantly for Wesley, the emergence of “love to all mankind” and the leaving behind of sinful attachments. This real change is the beginning of sanctification.  Implied in Wesley’s perspective is a conscious moment when a person turns in penitence and faith to God.
Again, Wesley sees the grace of God at work in all this both before we are aware of God in our lives, then as we respond to God’s reconciling love and the grace for the life’s journey, we grow in the likeness of Christ.
So for all our theologians there are some differences but some strong similarities.  They have all been compelled to study the Scriptures and work out for themselves some of the core principles of understanding God and Christ.
Implicit in these is the cultural and social context in which they seek to apply this understanding, and therefore we can observe the subtle changes in emphasis and interpretation as human society grows and develops.  There’s a hint of this in the Gospel reading today as Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Nazareth and people are astounded at what he is saying, but, as the saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and they are unable to receive what he brings but take offence.
Scripture continues to be interpreted and applied, it is after all ‘living and active’, and it is important that interpretation continues carefully and faithfully.  We must not remain stuck with a literalist, simplistic reading of Scripture and therefore do well to take seriously our own studies, either through personal reading or joining a group or course such as Exploring Christianity.
One of the ways in which the interpretation of the passage has moved on in recent years has become know as the ‘new perspective on Paul’. In a very small nutshell, this has focused on the Greek phrase which has been translated ‘faith in Christ’, and which is now suggested may more accurately be translated as ‘the faith of Christ’ or ‘the faithfulness of Christ’.  I won’t go into the implications of this, but it may be worth pondering the significance of the difference.
I believe then that the development of interpretations of Scripture is a Godly process because our awareness of the infinite Creator has to grow alongside other areas of intellectual endeavour.  If this were not the case we would still be sacrificing children, leaving disabled people to die and owning slaves.
Our current theological challenges in the Church worldwide are over human sexuality, marriage, gender and in certain quarters still about women priests and bishops.  But change will happen and new challenges will be faced - I can’t imagine how we’re going to deal theologically with artificial intelligence.
But my hope for the future lies in the grace and love of God, which are evident in all the writers I have mentioned.  The overwhelming emphasis, stemming from Paul’s theology, is God is always at work to seek us out, offering the Godself to the world in continuing, creative, overflowing love. 
It is also clear that for Paul, the Christian life is all about participation in Christ, that we live in and through Christ: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’.  So the quality of our life, individually and in community reflects the nature and life of Christ.  Being in Christ is reflected in lives characterised by faith, hope and love.  Moreover, we receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit who endows us with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Think of a world where these are the dominant virtues - this goes some way to describing the Kingdom of God.  Our theological skip through some historical writings of great Christian thinkers may have started with justification, faith and grace but the destination is always the increase of the Kingdom of God, on earth and within us.

St Paul Sermon Series Week 5 - Joy's sermon on 'Living Well Together': 1 Corinthians 12 - Paul and his fledgling churches

Our task this morning is to reflect on what is probably a very well known passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Forgive me if some of what I say is familiar to you but I hope that even if this is the case it will be a springboard to thinking afresh about what it means to be the Church of God and therefore how we live together.
It is believed that the motivation for this letter to the church in Corinth was to address issues relating to people’s behaviour.  Even so Paul does this in rather a clever way because his moral guidance comes within a framework of our relationship to and within Christ. Or to put it another way, ethics and theology are closely connected in Paul’s writing.
Within this letter we can see Paul’s aim to help organize and nurture a community, and the life of that community. It is important then, as we hear today’s reading that we do not hear it as isolated individuals but we hear ourselves addressed as the church. 
Chapter 12 is in essence Paul’s perspective on corporate worship.  However, this is not just about what happens on a Sunday morning, because as we know, being here today should be part of what equips and enables us to live the Christian life other days of the week too.  The final words of the dismissal of our act of worship today are ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’; as well as bringing ourselves and our resources in worship to God, we come to put ourselves in God’s hands, to be received as part of the body of Christ, to be blessed and to be given, or sent, to the world for its blessing. 
Paul is seeking to bring the disorderly and self-centred worship practices of the Corinthians under control so that the church as a whole may be built up.  The aim is the same today, that our worship builds us up for the life of discipleship, the call to follow Jesus and become his true sisters and brothers; daughters and sons of God.  We belong to Jesus and together with him belong to our heavenly Father and to each other.
It is with this in mind then that we reflect on what this ancient text has to say to us today and I’m focusing on three aspects of the text.
Firstly, it is the Spirit who empowers all Christian confession. We too live in an age of competing spiritualties, but Paul was clear that the Spirit inspires the confession of Jesus as Lord; it is the Holy Spirit at work for all those who profess faith in Jesus and the same spirit who binds all Christians in the unity of faith, whether we agree with them or not!  So this has something to say about how we manage disagreements in the Church, because the option to walk away from each other is an illusion.  Disagreeing well, which Archbishop Justin has encouraged, is hard, really hard because we disagree about some very deep things.  But to persevere with respect and humility means we can create a culture where it is possible for differences to be reconciled at least to the point of living together peaceably.

Secondly, Paul outlines something that we could call first century church organization theory. The manifestations of the Spirit may show variety but they have a common source and common aim.  These manifestations, such as wisdom, prophecy and healing are gifts of God given through the Holy Spirit for the purpose of the common good; they are not ends in themselves but are given to encourage and build up the whole community.  At the end of the chapter he returns to the idea of Spirit inspired callings for individuals: apostles, teachers, prophets, but again he focuses on their purpose to create the divine community.   It would be interesting to read through these gifts and ponder which ones you see in evidence in our church community, and indeed which ones you are drawn to or feel uncomfortable about.
And thirdly, there is the body analogy: the notion of diversity and interdependence.  Probably the image we are most familiar with because the phrase ‘the body of Christ’ comes up so often in our services and as a phrase to describe the Church.  I want to draw out, from this analogy of the body, the implication that we must recognize that the privileged and powerful are bound together with the less fortunate and weak.  One of the issues in the Corinthian church that Paul sought to challenge was that those who were more powerful, either through wealth or status tended to act in a way that ostracized and despised others.  In pointing to the importance and indeed necessity of all parts of the body, Paul was driving home the message that all are valued and have a part to play in God’s economy.  Especially in these days where many people feel vulnerable about their place in British society it is particularly important that we are genuinely welcoming and inclusive.
All that we have considered so far is pertinent to the future; we all desire that more people should come to know their belovedness in God and become part of the body of Christ on earth.  But our present experience is no guide to the future.  What do I mean by this: firstly I am confident that God will continue to be at work in the world and will draw people to into the Divine love.  I also believe that the Christian Church will continue, but possibly not in all its current expressions. 
The picture of social and cultural life changes across the centuries and we are living at a time of particular change and those of us of a certain age and with many years of faith find it hard to accept that Christian faith is not the backdrop to daily life.  Those coming in to the Church of the future will create different norms and expectations, to say nothing of different ways of doing things.  In fact, this is not really in the future; there are places and communities where Christian faith is being expressed in very different ways now. 
The question is, can we respond in love rather than fear, to new ways of being a community of believers?  If the Benefice is accepted to become part of the Partnership for Missional Church programme it will mean change: change in our attitudes and ways of doing things and change can makes us afraid.  Fear is one of the main agenda items of the systems of our world and the news is usually full of stories of fear.  There is a spiritual truth about questions that originate from a place of fear: they never produce answers created in love.  Fear is like a spider plant, it produces a lot of other fears.
But the heart of Divine life is love, perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear.  We are a diverse community with a profound calling: to represent Jesus to each other and the world, and engage in God’s rescue plan.  We couldn’t ask for a better contemporary metaphor of this than presented to us in the story of the rescue of the boys from the cave in Thailand.  Lives in jeopardy requiring a rescue plan that is as dangerous as it is daring.  A rescue plan that necessitates specialized skills and extraordinary levels of expertise, bringing together a diverse and dedicated group of people with one particular purpose - to reach the boys and get them safely back to their families.  This sounds very much like another rescue plan I know of, one where love overcomes fear and individuals find their true home in community.

Monday, 30 July 2018

St Paul Sermon Series Week 6 - Richard's Sermon on Paul the Constant Traveller: Philippians 3.7-end

Paul Sermon Series No.6
Going the Distance       Paul the Constant Traveller
Philippians 3.7-end

At the end of last month I was sitting on a hot day in an Arabic Studies Seminar in the department of Oriental Studies in Oxford. It was a University Open Day and Iona is keen on studying Arabic. Alongside me, occupying most of one wall was a gigantic map, with titles and legend in German, of the journeys of St Paul. Since the seminar was rather more relevant to Iona than me, I made sure I looked again at the map. You have a map of those same journeys in front of you. It is a vivid reminder of just how much of Paul’s ministry was spent on the road, just what a constant traveller he was. The combination of a German map in an Arabic studies room in an English university might seem rather strange, but then again it reminded me of just what a traveller the gospel is. After all it has an Arabic base, not a European one and we should do well to remember that. Paul himself was from that hinterland between Turkey and Syria and would have considered Jerusalem as his spiritual home. We have just heard a crucial passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a Roman city in northern Greece, ancient Macedonia, north of the city we now call Thessaloniki. They were his first European converts and, according to Acts 16, Paul only crossed into Europe because avenues in Turkey were becoming exhausted.
Paul and the gospel may have had an Arab base but he came to understand that the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ was for all people an in all times – the Jews and Gentiles of Philippi who became the first European Christians, the Germans who put together that map in what looks like the early years of the twentieth century, just as much as those looking at it now in a twenty first century British university, and you sitting here today.

And perhaps we might not have been sitting here today with those great journeys of St Paul, without his constant travelling. Around eight-twelve of the last twenty years of his life was spent on the road or in prison. Sometimes he stayed a few weeks in a particular place, sometimes up to two years, making a living for himself as a tentmaker while he preached the gospel and established those fledgling Christian communities. If you look at your maps you can see that his first journey  in A.D. 45 or 46 took him to Cyprus and into what was then called Galatia, inland Turkey now. A couple of years later a more extensive journey (c.A.D. 48-51) revisited some of those earlier destinations to strengthen the believers but also crossed to Greece. Then from c.A.D.53 Paul and his companions set out to gather a collection for the beleaguered parent church in Jerusalem. Then there was the final enforced sea journey to Rome that nearly ended in disaster as the ship was driven by a storm from Crete and wrecked on Malta. This doesn’t count the various journeys to Jerusalem or include the planned but probably never taken missionary journey to Spain. And all of this at a time when you couldn’t just hop on a train or plane and where danger on the road was never far away.
The churches founded and strengthened and written to and the money collected for Jerusalem in itself is quite a legacy. And there were times that Paul had to beat away adoring crowds who though that he and Barnabas were gods come to earth; and there were times when he was accused of starting riots; and there were times that he was thrown into prison; and there were times that he survived assassination plots against him; and there were times when he was beaten; and there were times when he and his companions fell out spectacularly. As Paul himself writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor 11.25ff)
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 

What on earth drove Paul to keep enduring such hardships and keep travelling onwards. He himself told us as he writes to the Philippians. It is nothing less than the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ The reason that Paul is so fired up with missionary zeal is because of the inner journey that he himself has taken and wants others to take as well – following the Jesus way in order to gain glory. The end of this third chapter of Paul’s letter to one of his most beloved congregations, is so crucial because it gives that insight into what makes Paul tick, what turned him into that constant traveller. He could have relied on his previous privilege or status. Just before verse 7 he reels off a long list of those things that made him an absolute twenty four carat, pukka Jew. He could have led his life relying on the privilege which all of that gave him. And yet he considers it all crap – and I use the word advisedly as the best translation of Paul’s word; it would have shocked his listeners as it shocks you now – in order to gain Christ and be found in him. Paul has so got under the skin of Jesus and Jesus has so got under his skin that, like Jesus, Paul has found that the journey which begins in giving up status and which involves suffering on behalf of others ends in glory. That’s why he regards what came before as loss and why he is continually travelling inwardly as well as outwardly, ‘pressing on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

It’s no coincidence that the journey sketched out by St Paul here is the same journey that he celebrates Jesus taking a little earlier in this letter in what we call ‘The Song of Christ’s Glory’, a version of which we sing in the hymn ‘At the name of Jesus’. Jesus lays aside his status with God to take human flesh for our sake. He leaves behind former status and endures suffering on behalf of others. Therefore God raises him to glory. Paul believes that he himself is called to go the distance with Jesus, to so travel the Jesus way that he may obtain the prize of glory.
And then comes the point of all of this, for the Philippians and for you and I  also.
‘They must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the messiah. But how can they imitate him? They have not been zealous jews, eager for the Law. No, but they all have their own status, their own personal or civic pride. And even if they don’t have any (because they are poor or slaves or women – though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all have the standing temptations to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they are Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who find themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, all must resist and find instead the way of holiness and unity that is shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God.’ (T.Wright: Paul, A Biography p.279)
And Paul calls out the same message across the centuries to us – to travel the Jesus way in order to find glory, to press on towards the goal; perhaps to turn our back on status or a love of possessions or new experiences. We may not be called to suffer as Paul did but we are called to lay aside our status, our pride and to turn our back on the temptations that drag us from God, because that is the road to glory. We may not be called to suffer as Paul did but we are called to expect apathy or mockery or a lack of understanding or hostility and to know that it is all part of getting under Jesus’ skin and him getting under ours.

Paul reminds the Philippians that they are citizens of heaven. The term ‘citizen’ was a very loaded one at that time and in that place. Roman citizens, of course, had special privileges, and it was the goal of many a freed slave or subject from across the empire to become a Roman citizen. And it would have been doubly resonant in Philippi. This was a city, established by the emperor Augustus from army veterans. As well as a projection of Roman power a colony would have been seen as an outpost of Roman culture, full of Roman citizens bringing the Roman way to a foreign place. They may have lived in Greece but they were Roman citizens and their true home was Rome.

The term citizen is a loaded one now also. In a world where migration and instant communication mean so many are on the move, the notion of ‘to where we belong’ is an important one. As we head towards Brexit there is much discussion about belonging. The detail of the settlement will need to flesh out in law whether EU citizens living here (and vice versa) will effectively still be EU citizens living under EU law or British citizens living under British law. And that has led to far more existential questions about belonging. Where do you think you belong? Are you European or British or English or a global citizen. Teresa May famously said at her speech to the Conservative party conference in 2016. ‘If you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means. The writer David Goodhart has coined the terms ‘Somewheres’ to categorise those who have strong local and natural attachments; and ‘Anywheres’, global villagers who value autonomy and mobility. Crudely put, the former were more likely to vote Leave and the latter to vote Remain.

St Paul knew about the power of identity and the power of citizenship – he was a Jew from Asia Minor who was also a Roman citizen – but he knew that the journey we take is essentially one of colonisation. Those who call themselves Christians, followers of Jesus, those who travel the Jesus way are primarily citizens of heaven living on earth and aiming like the Roman citizens in the Roman colony of Philippi to project God’s kingdom into where they live; aiming to bring the ways of the kingdom to Allerton or to Wedmore or to Heath House etc; aiming to live as if these places are outposts of heavenly culture. We may live on the Isle of Wedmore, we may live in Britain, we may live in Europe, we may live as global citizens, but our true home is God’s kingdom.

And colonising earth was what kept Paul travelling.
‘Paul’s missionary journeys were not simply aimed at telling people about Jesus in order to generate inner personal transformation and a new sense of ultimate hope, though both these mattered vitally as well. They were aimed at the establishment of a new kind of kingdom on earth as in heaven. A kingdom with Jesus as king.’ (T.Wright: Paul, A Biography p.106-7)

Monday, 9 July 2018

St Paul Sermon Series Week 4 - Richard's sermon on Grace, Justification and Faith 'Galatians 2. 15-end Paul, Augustine, Luther and Wesley'

Grace, Justification and Faith

Paul, Augustine, Luther and Wesley
Galatians 2.15-end
Christchurch Theale 08 July 2018

A little over 25 years ago I found myself in Tubingen in Germany sitting at a massive oak conference table amid that beautiful university, drinking coffee, eating the most enormous pretzels and listening to one of the foremost New Testament scholars of his time Professor Martin Hengel talk about the gospels. About ten from my theological college were staying in Baden-Wurtemberg for a week and this was one of the highlights of the trip. One of our number asked Professor Hengel what the essence was of his own theology. He banged the table with his fist and the pretzels jumped in the air as he exclaimed – ‘gnade und liebe; gnade und liebe'; grace and love. Simple really.

I guess if you were to have asked St Paul the same question, though without pretzels, he would have given you much the same answer. To him the gospel he had been given by his Lord Jesus Christ, the gospel that he had devoted his life to sharing across the Mediterranean was all about receiving God’s grace and having faith in the one who had mediated that grace to us – Jesus Christ. And fairly early on in his ministry, perhaps around 46 AD Paul, with his long time colleague Barnabas, the son of consolation, he brought that liberating gospel of grace and inclusivity to the people of what is now inland Turkey, Celts who had settled there decades before. And not long after that, so it seems, other followers of Jesus had come to that part of the world from Jerusalem. These were Jewish Christians who told the converts of Galatia that it wasn’t enough to put your faith in Jesus. If you wanted to be part of God’s new chosen people, if you wanted to inherit his promises then you would need to stick with the ancient laws and customs of the Jewish people also. Circumcision, keeping the proper sacred days, eating the correct food – these were all to be signs of God’s favour that needed to be kept.

And a little after that Paul hears news of what is happening in some of the churches to which he has brought the gospel and he writes to them. And he doesn’t hold back it is safe to say. The epistle to the Galatians is believed to be the earliest writing we have from Paul and many of the ideas he puts forward can be found in more polished form when he writes to the Romans a decade later. ‘You foolish Galatians’ he proclaims. What were you thinking of?
The passage we have heard today can sound a little dense and difficult to grasp to our modern ears but the words ‘justification; law; faith and grace come through loud and clear. ‘We know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.’ Back in the book of Job the author puts the question on the lips of Job ‘How can a man be justified before God?’ It is a question with which Paul is occupied in so many of his writings. God is all perfect. We…well we are clearly somewhat less so. And no matter how hard we try, all of our good actions put together can never bring us close to God, allow us to stand and look him in the eye. So any law that seeks to justify an upward striving of human religion and morality is always going to fail because it just becomes a structure by which we can try and buy our way into heaven.

But Paul knew first hand about God’s grace offering up a new start. He knew that it wasn’t a matter of what we do and how hard we try to fulfil certain obligations but rather a matter of what God has done for us out of love.
Think of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. He has kept all the commandments since he was a boy. But Jesus challenges him – ‘if you truly want to be part of God’s kingdom, sell what you have, give it to the poor and follow me.’ Being truly right before God isn’t about following the law, however admirable, but putting your trust in Jesus – faith – because of what he has done for us – grace.
Or think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Those who had worked all day expected to receive more for their labours than those who had worked just the last hour. The grace of God is not be parcelled out and adjusted to the varieties of individual merit. There was, as one commentator has pointed out, a coin worth one twelfth of the denarius that all those workers received. It was called a pondion. But there is no such thing as a twelfth part of the love of God.’ (F.F. Bruce commentary quoting T.W. Manson).

And to talk about God’s grace rather than our own versions of merit can be quite challenging and radical and disconcerting. I was told a few weeks ago by a member of Allerton congregation about a former pastor of theirs from Manchester who used to use this illustration to get people thinking about grace – ‘Imagine that after your death you really do find yourself meeting St Peter with him welcoming you as a faithful servant of the Lord. He shows you to a big meeting room and gives you a ticket to your numbered seat. You find your way past hundreds and thousands of people, some of whom you once knew and finally find your seat. You turn to shake the hand of your neighbour and find yourself looking at Adolf Hitler. What do you say?’

And to talk about God’s grace rather than our own merit can also be incredibly liberating and inclusive. You don’t need people to mediate between yourself and God. ‘He himself has come close to you so that you can come close to him.’ It’s no coincidence that it is in the letter to the Galatians that Paul makes that famous statement ‘There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) God’s grace and love his ‘gnade und liebe’ is for everyone and it isn’t for us to put limits on it or barriers towards it. That’s what those Jewish Christians from Jerusalem were trying to do. And that’s why the Galatians were foolish because they had chosen to be imprisoned again.

And to talk about God’s grace rather than our own versions of merit is a revolutionary idea that reflects God’s topsy turvy kingdom – our relationship with God is not essentially about trying to keep to a set of rules that others have formulated or feeling that you have to do enough to please him; rather it is based on what God has done for us – grace – a belief in which makes us want to respond to him – faith.

That is also why it is a belief that has echoed through history and led so many great men and women to seek to change the world. The greatest of all Christian thinkers St Augustine based his ideas and writing on those of St Paul and influenced Christianity as it spread across Europe. Martin Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s understanding and his exasperation with a church that was encouraging people literally to but their way into heaven drove one of the great revolutionary movements in history, the Reformation. John Wesley’s rediscovery of Paul’s understanding helped to awake a rather moribund English 18th century Christianity, produced the quiet revolutionary movement that was Methodism and gave hope to ordinary men and women throughout the country.

And what might it mean for us. Are there any revolutionaries here? Perhaps not. But we are all recipients of God’s grace through the love he shows to us in Jesus. Through the cross, we are at-one with God and it is his doing, not ours. What a relief.
And does that mean that because God has set us free we can do whatever we want? I’m afraid not – or as Paul would say ‘By no mean’! It is precisely because we have been set free by God’s grace, because we have put our trust in him that his love and grace can pour out of us and that all those virtues and all those good deeds can follow.
Last weekend at the tail end of a party I was in conversation with two non Christian friends. I doubt that they were in a fit state to remember any of it. But they were stating their belief that the core of Christianity was about being nice to other people and I was stating my belief that it is a little bit more than that. There’s nothing wrong with being nice and God knows there is enough of its opposite around. But that’s not the end of who or what we are or even the means to the end. It is the essential by product of God’s ‘gnade und liebe’ towards us.

In his very accessible and well written biography of Paul Bishop Tom Wright writes ‘those who are grasped by grace in the gospel and who bear witness to that in their loyal belief in the One God, focussed on Jesus, are not merely beneficiaries, recipients of God’s mercy; they are also agents . They are poems in which God is addressing his world, and, as poems are designed to do, they break open existing ways of looking at things and spark the mind to imagine a different way to be human….through the gospel and spirit, God is now putting people right, so that they can be both examples of what the gospel does and agents of further transformation in God’s world.’

Agents and poems and a means to inspire a different way of being human. Wow, that’s a high calling indeed. Augustine grasped it, Luther grasped it, Wesley grasped it. Can I sign you up?

St Paul Sermon Series Week 3: Richard's sermon on A New Creation? Part 2 'Romans 8.18-25 Paul the Visionary Philosopher

St Paul Sermon Series: Week 3
‘A New Creation? – Part 2’: St Paul the Visionary Philosopher
The Feast Day of the Birth of John the Baptist

I’m sure we all remember those wonderful characters Del Boy and Rodney from one of the greatest of all tv comedies Only Fools and Horses. One of the most famous episodes is when Del’s son Damian is born. At the end of the episode Del takes his new son to the window of the delivery room to gaze at the night sky and dreams big dreams on his behalf of all the wonderful things they will do together. Del looks to the stars and talks to his dead mother, holding his new born son for the first time. He then promises his boy he'll give him everything he never had. "I wanted to do things, be someone, but I never had what it took. But you, you're different. You're gonna live my dreams for me. You're gonna do all the things I wanted to do, and you're gonna come back and tell me if they're as good as I thought they would be..."

All parents have dreams for their children of how they are going to change the world or how they will look after them or the opportunities they will have. I wonder what those of you who are parents dreamed for your own children. I’m sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah had their dreams for their son John. After all they were well aware of the circumstances of his conception and birth – two older parents, the vision in the temple. They will have known that ‘the hand of the Lord was with him’ (Luke 1.66) and that he was destined to be someone special. Indeed all the neignours were asking ‘What then will this child become?’

Usually the church marks saints on the date of their death, or marks their martyrdom or the contributions of their lives looking back. It’s unusual to have a birthday celebration. But John is unusual and it is appropriate to mark his birth because it marks part of the heralding of the new creation that God has planned in and through his son Jesus.

The bible is full of stories of amazing births – Abraham and Sarah producing Isaac when they are well into their 90s, Jacob grasping his twin Esau’s heel as he emerges from the womb, Moses and his basket, the longed for and prayed for Samuel, John the Baptist and Jesus himself. In many ways and in retrospect we might see what happened to Saul, Paul, on the way to Damascus as a birth. Certainly his vision of Christ left him helpless as a baby, needing to be led and housed and fed and then sight coming. He himself saw the whole experience in that way as a new birth, just as all Christians should talk of their own baptisms as a new birth. The old is cast away and a new human emerges, one who soon assumes a new name.
Writing to one of his favourite churches at Philippi many years later Paul lists all the parts of his old life that might have given him pride – ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless’ (Philippians 3.5-6); but then he goes on to say ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (Philippians 3.8).
So what are the dreams of Paul for this new life? When it comes to dreaming, Paul dreams big. He doesn’t just have dreams for his own life and how his future will pan out. He sees things in cosmic terms. He looks back at all those events heralded by the birth of John the Baptist, the life of Jesus, the cross of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of the return of Jesus and he understands that this affects not just believers but the whole of creation. That’s quite a claim!
The passage we have just heard read from Romans chapter 8 is the pivotal part of what is seen as the pivotal chapter of the letter that bears the fullest working out of the Paul’s thoughts and beliefs. Creation is not now what it was created for, things are not how they should be. Creation itself waits for the fullest revelation of God in the coming again of Jesus. Those of us who know him and wait for him are the first fruits of all that God wants to accomplish and we are marked therefore by hope.
Paul talks of creation waiting with eager longing and brings home the point about new birth and new creation by writing how ‘the whole of creation has been groaning in labour pains until now’.
It’s a big dream that the new creation that God has begun through Jesus is for all people and all creatures and all plants and all rocks and all time.

Paul may be a big dreamer but what he dreams isn’t just pie in the sky, the wishful thinking of someone who feels they have been born again. His head may be in the clouds but his feet are grounded firmly in the scriptures and in his people’s knowledge of the God they follow. The story of Paul has many gaps, especially in the years following his conversion. Like all new births a time of growth and maturing was needed. From Damascus he goes to Arabia, possibly to Mount Sinai to reflect. And not long after his first visit to the church in Jerusalem there are ten missing years back home in Tarsus. Ten years to test what he has come to find out about Jesus against the scriptures in which he is steeped and finding that his Jewish beliefs , that righteousness of which he was once so proud have not been disproved and left behind by Jesus but instead have found their fulfilment in him.

Bishop Tom Wright who knows Paul a whole lot better than I ever will and who has been thinking and writing about him for decades says ‘Saul came to see that the two stories, Israel’s story (of a faithful remnant with its focus in a coming king, messiah) and God’s story (of all that God had already achieved and could therefore be trusted to do in the future) had, shockingly, merged together. Both narratives were fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus was Israel personified but he was also Israel’s God in person. The great biblical stories of creation and new creation, Exodus and the new Exodus, Temple and the new Temple all came rushing together at the same point. This was not a new religion. This was a new world…..’ (Paul: A Biography pp71-2)
‘Put some of the great royal psalms together. Dip them in the prophetic scriptures such as Isaiah 11 (the shoot from the stump of Jesse, that is David, will inaugurate the new creation of justice and peace) and you have a composite picture of the hope of Israel.; hope for a new world not just a rescued or renewed people and hope for a coming king through whose rule it would come about. Put all that into the praying mind of Saul of Tarsus, who is sensing a new energy transforming and redirecting his earlier ‘zeal’ and what do you get?...What might it mean to say that the crucified and risen Jesus is the king of whom Psalm 2 had spoken. How would that work out, what would it look like in practice?’ (ibid. p74)

And that’s the question we have to grapple with in our life and worship together today. What does that great dream and realistic hope look like in practice today, look like in us today?
Paul’s answer might be ‘a community of grace’! Like the one spoken of in Romans 8 – waiting, stumbling onwards, suffering ridicule and hostility, all too aware of and caring about the dreadful state of the world, filled with the Spirit, guided by hope. A community maybe also a bit like ours. We look at the state of the world and are concerned. We wait in hope. We suffer, if not hostility, then at least huge apathy. We are filled with the Spirit. We are guided by hope.

It is perhaps difficult to get to grips with big, complex and rather overwhelming passages such as this. We somehow know that it is important but Paul isn’t always the easiest writer or thinker to grasp and we may wonder what is all that to do with us as we try to do our best for this place and for God?

Well we all have dreams. So like Paul dream big. The story we have to tell isn’t just about a man who went about doing good and who was an amazing teacher. It isn’t just about the possibility of resurrection after our mortal life. It isn’t just about being the body of Christ for this community. It is about new creation and hope for all that God has made.

And like Paul make sure your dreams are well grounded. Saul, Paul, knew his scriptures so well. He knew through them that God could be trusted in the future because of all that he had dome in the past. Do you know your scriptures? Are they the means for testing and proving the hope that is in you. There is so much biblical illiteracy in our culture but it begins in our churches because so many don’t spend time with the story of the bible. They are content to have it explained to them once a week by people like me. Use those opportunities to study the scriptures, as Paul did, and like him you will find that your hope grows.

St Paul Sermon Series Week 3: Mike's sermon on Paul the Visionary Philosopher 'Romans 8.18-25 A New Creation? Part 2'

Paul the Visionary Philosopher                     Romans 8.18-25
A New Creation? Part 2

Today’s topic in the Sermon series is Paul the Visionary Philosopher – a new creation?
This suggests three questions – was he a visionary? Was he a Philosopher? Was he a New Creation after his Damascus Road experience.

There is little doubt that he was a visionary in more than one sense of the word, he was clearly someone who thought about the future with imagination and wisdom as evidenced in this particular instance by his discourse on the future – of how God would transform his believers and right the wrongs of the world as he and we know them.

Alongside his vision on the road to Damascus Paul often speaks of visions, some writers have attributed his visions to Epileptic fits, including Damascus, but there is no firm evidence of this – instead he has visions akin to those of the prophets.

Here he is thinking about all that has happened to him and others - Paul knew suffering - knew more suffering than any one of us have gone through or ever will go through.  He was beaten - stoned - rejected - shipwrecked - chained - imprisoned - starved - hungry - naked – cold and he looks at what has happened to the world God created and is asking himself why it should be and what is going to make it change for the better.

This is the Philosopher in him – a philosopher is one who uses reason in understanding such things as the nature of the real world and existence, the use and limits of knowledge, and the principles of moral judgment.

Paul is looking at the choices we make - every day we’re confronted with a number of choices. Behind every choice we make is one basic bottom line choice  -  To turn towards God or to turn away from God.   God is gracious to us - in every circumstance of our lives - God gives us that choice of turning towards Him and as Paul argues experiencing the Glory (which we do not comprehend) that is to come.

His philosophical style of argument is in my view little different from the style of philosophy that he would have learnt as a Jew and used in the Sanhedrin – so in this respect - not a New Creation.

In verse 19 onwards Paul is saying the earth is polluted and damaged physically, morally and spiritually because of man.  Many of the disasters and destruction we see around us are because of man. The planet’s been in decay - corrupt - as Paul puts it - since the fall of man.  

In his shared but mainly internal debate he reflects on his suffering and in visionary mode he concludes there’s no comparison to the Glory we will experience at our Resurrection even though he doesn’t know what that experience will be like.

He effectively says that as horrible - as horrific – his sufferings, those of other Christians and of the world in general have been, no matter how intense or extreme - there is no comparison as what’s coming is so far greater - so unimaginably better - so magnificently awesome - so beyond anything we experience in this life - that there is no way to compare them.

His vision is imprecise – it is simply that through the sacrifice of Jesus he is confident the day is coming when we will see the New Heaven and New Earth we have been promised –when God has cleared the world of sin and evil – even though Paul is suffering he “Waits eagerly” like person standing craning his neck to seek what’s coming along the road – he is excited by his hope even though the vision is not clear.

Paul is writing to encourage his readers to accept and just as important trust Christ and his promises and to make the choice to follow him.  I hope we understand just how incredible that choice really is or was – we need to grow our resolve to turn to towards God and to trust Him and share in that hope and vision of a better world.

What’s coming isn’t just about being set free from aches and pains - but being set free to live life as God created life to be lived.  To live as God’s children. See how important the use of the word ‘adopted’ is -in the Roman and Greek way of understanding things - adoption was much more than just a legal process of placing a child into a home.  An adopted child had the same rights - standing - relationship - as a natural born child. The sort of adoption I experienced.

When we come to salvation in Jesus - the same Holy Spirit present at the conception of Jesus - the natural born Son of God - enters into us - producing fruit - giving us a new birth - a spiritual birth - as a son of God making us that New Creation.

It is a powerful visionary and philosophical concept - As God’s adopted children - we’re God’s children - able to come into His presence and to call Him “Abba.  Father.”  With all of the trust and intimacy and privilege of what that title implies.  With Jesus - we are heirs of the riches of the kingdom of God.  

Heaven isn’t about sitting on clouds and playing harps - Getting to heaven is only the beginning of what God has in store for us. God has promised us a future incomparable to what we see today - an unimaginable eternity with Him.

In verse 23 - the Greek word for “waiting eagerly” is a different word than the one in verse 19. In verse 19 “waiting eagerly” had the idea of craning our necks to see what’s coming. 

In verse 23 the word is “ekdekomai” - which has the idea of waiting eagerly to receive something that’s been promised to us. Paul writes that we hope for what we do not see.  But what we know is coming - what our Father has promised to us - the fulfillment of what it means to be His child.

He uses the words ‘We groan’ - even though we have that promise – that we live surrounded by corruption and decay - we even feel it and see it happening in us - but we know that this isn’t the way it will be.  We don’t want to settle for this world.  We want something infinitely greater that God is bringing to us.   We know that something incomparable is coming

That’s where Paul is going in these verses in chapter 8.  The incomparable reality that’s coming - that God has given to each one of us who have turned to Him - who’ve trusted in Jesus as our Savior.  Not because we deserve it.  But because God is gracious.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 - that one day the perishable will put on the imperishable - mortal will put on immortality.  We - God’s children - will live forever in the presence of God - our Father.   There’ll be no pain - no sorrow - no crying - no death.  

This is Paul – a visionary of future glory – a changed man from the bigot that persecuted the Christians – a new creation – and as a Philosopher the style hadn’t changed but the content of his consideration had - very markedly. So yes – using old skills but as a Visionary Philosopher he was a New Creation – thanks be to God.

St Paul Sermon Series Week 2: Joy's sermon on Paul, Mocked and Imprisoned '1 Corinthians 1.18-25 Proclaiming Christ Crucified'

Sunday 17th June Sermon Series Part 2
1 Corinthians 1: 18 - 25
Christ the Power and Wisdom of God
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Some background context to the city of Corinth and Paul’s relationship with the community there:
Introduction to the city of Corinth
A city reborn
Corinth was a new Roman city with an ancient Greek past. It was sacked by the Romans in 146 BC and restored in 44 AD. Major building work was needed to recreate the city. While some features, such as the temples, were restored on their previous sites, the forum and many parts of the centre of the city were remodelled according to plans drawn up in Rome.
There would have been a Roman population alongside the Greek one, but there were also immigrants and migrant workers from all around the Mediterranean, including people from Crete, Syria and Macedonia, and also Egypt and Judea.
For many of these people, this was a go-ahead place, looking forward, not backwards – but perhaps the memory of what had happened lived on in the collective memory of Greek families there. Maybe it gave them a different Greek identity as compared to the intellectual confidence and pride of being an Ephesian, for instance.
Layers of society
While it was a new and prosperous place, we should not run away with the idea that it was a place where anyone could prosper by hard work and that social opportunities were equal. There were still significant social divisions, not only between the very rich and the very poor, but also between those who were born free and those who were born slaves. Although it was possible for a prosperous and able slave to buy their freedom and become a ‘freedman’, there is some evidence that a freedman would still be barred from some civic positions.
The Christian community in Corinth
Paul had a troubled relationship with the church in Corinth. He had planted congregations in the city following his arrival there in 50 AD. Luke, in Acts 18, tells us that Paul stayed 18 months, working in partnership with Priscilla and Aquila who were tent makers like him, and enjoying a fruitful ministry  (Acts 18.1-17).
Having left the city in late 51 or early 52 AD, Paul wrote a letter that is now lost, which contained further advice and teaching for the young believers. In response, they wrote to him asking for clarification of a number of points he’d made. His reply is what we have in our Bibles as 1 Corinthians. And let’s take note that as the congregation were read the letter they would have debated and discussed its contents - not like hearing sermons today where people listen (or daydream) and probably say nothing!
Shortly after sending that letter, Paul made a return visit to Corinth that didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. After he left, he wrote again. This letter, also lost, is known as ‘the painful letter’ and is referred to in 2 Corinthians. It caused a degree of anger among its recipients but also led to a rethink on their part. So when Titus brings news of the church to Paul in Troas, things are looking up.
Paul starts writing the letter we have in our Bibles as 2 Corinthians. However, not all the news Titus brings is good; there are still rival teachers at work in Corinth who are questioning Paul’s credentials and asserting that his gospel is defective because he suffers so much. Clearly the relationship between Paul and this church is not fully restored.
So, Paul’s passionate letters to this church that is trying to find its way amidst competing commitments are a plea for making Christ the centre of their worship and daily life, and to focus on right living in a city where every lifestyle choice was an acceptable option.
It is no surprise then that these letters still speak to us today.
There is nothing new it appears, in people believing that religion and faith are for simpletons and those who are not particularly intelligent!
Corinth in Paul’s day was in some ways not dissimilar to 21st century Britain. There was prevalent atheismreligion was mocked; philosophy was an amusement, and had become a mere argument about words, an arena for those who liked to argue about the meaning of things for the sake of it.  Today we have fundamentalist atheism and the assumption that science can explain everything important to human life.
The bitterness of the quarrels going on in Corinth drives Paul back to the foundations of faith. The cross is the antithesis of success, the end of ambition, the enemy of human pride. Those enmeshed in quarrels have not understood the power of God, which subverts and turns on its head, the way a so-called vibrant and successful society actually works. Power, status, wealth, all that society regards as markers of success are foolishness in God’s economy.  This wordly ‘wisdom’ is empty and futile from the point of view of the gospel.  In Corinth, as today, so much depended on charm, money and social status, but God works by overturning all such pretension. No one could be impressed by the cross. It is sheer ‘folly’, representing to the so-called ‘wise’ nothing but failure and degradation. But the truth is that the cross reveals both the power and wisdom of God.
Few of the Corinthian church came from privileged backgrounds, or wielded power or influence. Yet God chose them for a purpose: to shame those who rely on such things to manipulate others.  If we too feel we are not entirely part of the social scene around us because of our background, age, ill-health, more modest means or not being part of the ‘in crowd’, then we are in good company, for God’s heart is especially tender towards those who feel left out or on the edge. And anyone who does not promote inclusion and equality in the Church has not really grasped what God has revealed in the cross.  
The cross is an upside down act of love and self-sacrifice, where Jesus surrenders all power by choosing to be put to death by the world’s religious and political power systems.  The seeming foolishness of this is the wisdom of God.  God’s rule and reign comes through means that are completely opposite to society’s measures of success and power.  We encounter God most transformationally when we are weak, helpless and broken; when we turn to God in humility and trust, knowing we need to be continually saved from ourselves and the things prized by our contemporary culture. Then we see the power of God, the power of the cross, at work in our lives.