Thursday, 31 July 2014

Standing Firm and Staying Strong

I have been challenged a lot recently by the question of discipleship. Its a major theme as  we seek a way forward to maturity for my church and, as a leadership, we take seriously the oversight of the people in our care.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. The challenges are great as we strive to get along together with other Christians, people of God’s choosing and not ours. The sacrifices couldn’t be greater as we are called to die to ourselves and live to the Lord, being in but not of the world. We are not our own, but belong to another, and growing in our discipleship finds us almost daily having to choose a different path, rearrange our priorities, see the world quite differently to how our neighbours see it.

In our house group we recently looked at Paul’s exhortations in Philippians 4 and I think there is an example and a lesson here for us. He writes to two people in the Philippian church who had found a reason to quarrel and pleads with them to get along:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yoke-fellow, to help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Philippians 4:2-3)

It has always popular to cast Paul as a misogynist but here, as in many other places in his letters, we find evidence to the contrary. He urges these women to get along not least because of who they are, and because of what they mean to him. These are women who have worked alongside Paul in the cause of the gospel, women he regards as “fellow-workers” in mission and church planting.

Sometimes we can forget who we are and revert to our old, worldly ways. When we do that we find our daily walk with God a struggle every step, our spiritual life suffers and, more to the point, we become ineffectual in ministry just like Euodia and Syntyche. Like these two women, we become a burden instead of a benefit. We can draw others into the orbit of our distractions, and the church becomes poorly served by us and them.

Paul goes on in the next few verses to describe the Christian life in which we are to:

Stand firm in the Lord (v.1)

Rejoice in the Lord – always (v.4)

Be gentle and not anxious (v.v.5-6)

Be thankful and prayerful (v.6)

Thinking about what is right and good (v.8)

Putting into practice what we learn (v.9)

Being content (v.11)

All this becomes a mountain to climb when our minds and hearts are focussed on ourselves. We don’t know what the quarrel between these women was about but Paul clearly felt it more than capable of being resolved and urged them to resolve it. They simply couldn’t go on in this way. There are times for everyone when we must put our work down and seek rest, refuge, when we must refocus, examine ourselves (2 Cor.13:5) remember who we are, what we are about.

Paul reminds us of these very things earlier in his letter, where he urges us to imitate Christ in his humility (Philip.2:1-11); continue to work out our salvation (Philip.2:12-13); having confidence in Christ alone (Philip.3:7-11), and to press on to the goal (Philip.3:12-15) which is:

“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ., who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious bodies. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (Philip.3:20-4:1)

We stand firm and stay strong in our Christian walk first by remembering who we are, citizens of a heavenly kingdom, subjects of a heavenly king who won for us that citizenship at great cost. By remaining firm in the knowledge that his power, a power that will bring everything under his control, is the same power that is daily making us fully fit for that heavenly citizenship; this work is the work of discipling, the work of the church in the life of the disciple.

Christians are not an audience come to appreciate the preacher, not customers come to test the service of the church. Christians are the church and the opportunity to serve is ours. In light of this vision, this reward surely we can stand firm and stay strong, overcoming every temptation to act like it’s all about me and agreeing with each other, “in the Lord.” As Paul wrote:

“Forgetting what is behind, and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

All of us who are mature should take such a view.” (Philip.3:14-15)

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Understanding the Trinity

These notes are based on a sermon I preached recently at my own church. It was a privilege to be asked to speak on such an important subject and since the responses have been very kind and positive I thought it good to rearrange my notes into a blog post. It is normal to make certain assumptions when presenting such a message and on this occasion I assume the Bible to be our authority on all issues of life and faith. If you want to talk about why the Bible should be the final authority in these things please do get in touch and I will be happy to address that question.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible God

Incomprehension is the major objection to this teaching.”It doesn't make sense,” is what people say and you can understand their problem. The definition of the Trinity is that there is one God who exists in three ‘persons’ or ‘personalities’: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each member is equal in nature and substance, each fully God. Yet there is one God.

How might I think about this that will help my comprehension and my faith? As we approach our subject lets be frank in laying down some fundamental Bible truths about God, his character, and our “knowing” him.

1. It is important to understand that God is a mystery. This is not an excuse trotted out every time a hard question is asked about the Christian faith, rather it is a function of God’s nature and ours; he is God and I am not and the implications of this are plain enough. Of course, there is much about God that we do know and understand because God, in His infinite grace, has chosen to reveal Himself to us, and our knowledge of him is revealed knowledge - revelation knowledge.

We don't find him, he reveals himself to us, through His creation, through prophets and, finally, and ultimately, through His Son (Romans 1:19-20; Hebrews 1:1-2). But however much we know, or think we know, it is well to remember that although, He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccle.3:11)

Paul, in his letter to the Romans declared,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” (Romans 11:33-34).

If there are things about God that we cannot understand we are in good company.

2. A point sometimes raised is that the word 'Trinity' is not itself found in the Bible. Neither is the word 'Atheism' found in the Bible but it is described where the psalmist declares “The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'.”' (Ps.14:1) Although the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) the word 'Christianity,' is not found in the Bible. But 'Christianity' describes the faith held by Christians. Nor, indeed, is the word 'Bible' found in the Bible, but the 'Bible' is the record of God's dealings with his people throughout – the Bible. The presence or absence of words needn't be significant. What matters is whether the word describes something found in the Bible, and the word 'Trinity' describes the nature of the godhead as it is revealed in Scripture, and we will come to that.

3. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not, of itself, a test of saving faith. We are not saved by having a correct, orthodox and articulate understanding of the Trinity. We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

4. But that saving principle, faith in Jesus, illustrates how very important the Trinity doctrine really is  because it identifies Jesus. In several places in the New Testament we see Jesus worshipped and receiving worship. In John 20 we find Thomas falling at Jesus' feet and calling him, 'My Lord, and my God.' Jesus commends him for it and goes on to say that those who haven't seen him, yet believe as Thomas believed, are blessed indeed! (John 20:28-29) If Jesus is not fully God, if he is, as some insist, a creature then such faith as we exercise today amounts to idolatry.

5. Furthermore, we are not saved in ignorance. Becoming and being a Christian is much more than an exercise in thinking and reason, but it is not less than that. Paul tells us we are to be renewed in our minds (Eph.4:23) and everything in the New Testament urges us to be intelligent about our faith. We don't come to faith knowing so much but our walk of faith is meant to see us grow in the knowledge of God.

6. As we have already noted, God’s revelation of Himself unfolds as He reveals Himself through creation (Romans 1:19-20); through prophets, and finally through His Son (Hebrews 1: 1-2; John 14:9). To start then with the idea of the Trinity and work backwards is problematic because we can fall into the trap of reading things into Scripture instead of taking our doctrine from Scripture. By the same token, to say that we do not understand, and therefore it cannot be true, is also to read back into Scripture our conclusions instead of seeing what the Bible has to say. The Bible is, among many things, an historical document and history, especially the history of ideas, can only be properly understood read forwards.

To Begin at the Beginning

The New Testament writers and early church fathers did not have a complete and polished view, but they “discovered” the Trinity as they thought about the undeniable witness of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, burial and resurrection, and the claims He made for Himself. They had to come to terms with what it all means. If we start where they started and travel the same road of discovery we will likely arrive where they arrived. Lets see where they started.

In the Genesis account, God declares himself superior to the sun, moon, and stars that people foolishly worshipped by showing that he created them. There are no rivals for him, as the account of Genesis shows; “In the beginning God...” (Gen.1:1)

The Old Testament witness is fundamentally monotheistic, it teaches the oneness of God. Abraham was commanded to leave the polytheistic society of his father, the land of the Chaldeans that worshipped many gods, and follow the one true God (Gen.12:1-5)

When Moses brought down the mountain the code that the people of this one God, Israel, were to live by, that code begins with the command, “I am the LORD your shall have no other God before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2)

Through the clear teaching of Isaiah God declares:

Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let him proclaim it...have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me?..I know not any." (Is.44:6-8)

In their daily prayer, Jews repeated the Shema Yisrael, the call to Israel to hear and affirm the confession of Deut.6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

So a firm foundation of monotheism is established. It is important to understand this so that we grasp the true impact of Jesus on the society in which he ministered.

Jesus, the Clearest Revelation of God

What had those first Christians seen that could convince a stubbornly monotheistic people to believe in Jesus' divinity?

Speak to people today about Jesus and what they will likely remember is his radical teaching and his miracles. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out evil spirits. And the way he taught, as well as what he taught, is striking. There is more to the miracles than at first might be assumed, more to his claims than many realise. The Bible calls the miracles signs (John 20:30) Signs signify something and these signs are meant to signify who Jesus really is. We are meant to realise something, as we look at his life and ministry.

On more than one occasion Jesus' first disciples got entirely the wrong idea about this. At one of those times Jesus warned the disciples of the leaven, the influence, of the Pharisees, meaning the Pharisees' evil disposition. They thought he was upset because they had forgotten to bring bread for the journey. In exasperation, he said to his disciples:

Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?

When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "Twelve."

"And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" And they said to him, "Seven."

And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mk.8:18-21)

He had miraculously fed thousands. When was the last time thousands in a remote and barren place were fed by a miracle? Surely Israel in the Exodus, where God provided manna -“Having eyes, do you not see?”

He had power and authority to teach in a way that had never been seen before. Other teachers began, much as I do this morning, with referencing other authorities, Jesus declared, “But I say to you...” and it so impressed people they said, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” – “Having ears do you not hear?”

Jesus had power and authority over sickness, whole crowds being healed at his touch (Mark 1:33-34)

He had power and authority over nature. We see this in his calming of the storm, which has much greater significance than many imagine. The sea in Jewish culture was a symbol of chaos, it was out of chaos that God brought the order of creation in the beginning, and here was Jesus bringing order out of chaos – Such was the impact on his disciples of seeing this that, Mark tells us, “They were terrified and asked each other, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” (Mark 4:35-41)

Even more remarkable, Jesus had power and authority over death. When a synagogue ruler named Jairus pleaded with Jesus for his dying daughter's life, Jesus went to the man's home. She is already dead, they insisted, but Jesus simply took her hand and said, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.” Immediately, we are told, she got up and walked around (Mark 5:35-42) It is as easy for Jesus to raise someone from the dead as it is for us to rouse someone from sleep.

More remarkable yet, Jesus had authority to forgive sin. When the paralytic man was lowered through the roof by his friends so he could be healed by Jesus, Jesus' first words to him were, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Knowing the doubts of the religious leaders, their silent accusations of blasphemy, because God alone could forgive sin, Jesus said

Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven?' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...” He said to the paralytic, 'I tell, you get up, take your mat and go home.' He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all.” (Mark 2:1-12) “Do you not yet understand?”

I tell you...” Did you notice that? Not, in the name of, or by this, that or the other authority but, “I tell you...” By what authority, in whose name was Jesus doing all these things? “I tell you...”

We see it time and again, when he heals the sick; raises the dead; drives out demons; forgives sins; declares himself Lord of God's Sabbath; when he insists that with his advent, “The kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1:14-15) He speaks by his own authority!

But, most remarkable of all, Jesus makes the claim that he is able to command and send the Spirit of God to be with his disciples, “When the Counsellor comes, whom I will send to you, from the Father (there's a Trinitarian statement right there), the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (John 15:26) The Spirit of God, in Scripture, is understood to be God in action. Jesus commands the Spirit!

The Spirit of God

Who is this Counsellor? Jesus in John 14 calls him “Another Counsellor” and the term here means another of the same kind. In other words, just as I have been with you so will he be in you. What will he do?

  1. He is a personal replacement for Jesus who is now in glory

  2. He is so united with the Father and the Son that he mediates them to us, just as Jesus had mediated the Father

  3. He glorifies the Son in his teaching, just as Jesus had glorified the Father

Here is the third member of the Trinity.

You Don't Explain the Trinity, You Realise Its Revelation.Black Swan

Nassim Taleb wrote a book entitled The Black Swan. He tells how Europeans had only ever known white swans and so concluded that all swans are white. The sighting of a black swan in newly discovered Australia presented a dilemma. If all swans were white then this wasn't a swan, but if this was a swan then not all swans are white. The question was, are we going to review our understanding of things in light of this revelation, or are we going to stubbornly insist all swans are white, and this swan isn't a swan at all?

In this respect, Jesus is a black swan. That is the nature of the challenge his life and ministry presented.

Some responded, crying, 'crucify!' while others said, 'My Lord, and my God.'

John begins his gospel with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-14)

Did you ever wonder how Jesus was able to so easily impart life? It is because, “In him was life…” This cannot be said of you, or me. Our lives depend on God, the giver of life. Jesus has life in himself and can impart it where he pleases.

The writer to the Hebrews put it like this:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs...

When God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him.' (Heb.1:1-6)

Jesus is “the exact representation of [God’s] being…” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus is also worshipped by men and angels, and one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord (Philip.2:10-11) The question for us is not whether we fully comprehend the triune nature of God, but will we bend the knee now while it is still called today, while his mercy is still offered, and the choice is still ours, or will we bend the knee then when his full glory drives us to our knees, still rebellious and in our sin?

The Triunity of God

A better word for God, perhaps, is Triunity. It certainly more closely describes what we mean when we talk about the Trinity. But long before the word 'Trinity' was coined, Christians knew who Jesus was. And the implications for them and us are profound, reaching into eternity.

Because of who he is we can trust him when he says our sins are forgiven, because it is God the Son pronouncing our blessed state, acceptable before the throne because of Calvary.

Because of who he is we can trust that he walks with us today through this life, because it is God the Holy Spirit that walks with us and dwells in us.

Because of who he is we can trust him with all the tomorrows God the Father graciously grants and when there are no more tomorrows we can trust him with our death, resurrection, and eternity.

People struggle with the Trinity because we are creatures and God is Creator, and we will never fully comprehend his nature. But he has revealed that he is a God of order, of community, a God of Justice, a God of love and mercy, and the clearest expression of his wonderful character is found in Jesus, the closest communion we have with him is in the companionship of his Spirit, and it is in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit that we are baptised into that new life with our triune God.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Rolf Harris and a World Lost Forever?

Rolf_HarrisI talked today to a friend who spoke of his bitter disappointment at the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for unspeakable sex offences against youngsters, and of the earlier news of Stewart Hall’s offences. I know how he feels. As we take in news of Rolf Harris’ spectacular downfall it hardly seems possible, and its difficult to take in what has happened. Why is it that for a generation this has come as, not just a shock, but almost a sense of personal loss? There has been talk of Harris’ naturally avuncular style, his warm smile and friendly demeanour. We are naturally horrified to discover the dark side of this pleasant man. Who would not be at seeing such a Jekyll and Hyde character emerge from behind such a pleasing image? Is it, then, simply the realisation that his image has deceived us as we see the ‘real man’ behind the mask?

We have seen the reputations of a number of popular celebrities come crashing down, from Gary Glitter, through Stewart Hall, to Jimmy Saville, and now Rolf Harris.Others have been arrested, questioned, but never prosecuted. They are all of a type in one respect in that they come from a particular time in our history. Is there something about a certain generation that has produced these characters that have proved too good to be true? Why are, or were, these celebrities so important in the lives of so many people? The great majority would never have met them and certainly could never claim to know them except as they appeared on our television screens.

These days people are so divided into their cultural tribes they surely wouldn’t understand the word ‘community’ as it was understood back then. There was a time in this world when there were but two TV channels, BBC and ITV. Then, in 1964, came a third, BBC2 bringing what was regarded as high culture as a counterpoint to the popular culture of the day. These days no one could command the astronomical viewing figures enjoyed by successful entertainers back then. Just about everyone watched the most popular shows, from the Christmas specials of Morecambe and Wise, drawing audiences of 27 million in 1977, to Coronation Street, regularly pulling in audiences of 18million to 21 million in the 1970s. I could walk down a street where I lived on a Monday, or Wednesday evening at 7.30pm and from just about every house hear Eric Spear’s familiar, haunting theme for Coronation Street.

In work the next day “did you see…last night” inevitably drew  a lot of comment from the majority who could be relied upon to have seen the latest twists and turns in the country’s favourite dramas, comic capers from the country’s best loved entertainers, performances from the country’s most admired pop stars. Back then there still existed a strong sense of community. Although the advent of affordable TV rental plans inevitably drew people indoors where once they shared their own street dramas, when folk came out again they talked about the latest show, or episode from the goggle-box in the corner of the room.

It was into this community that a certain generation of entertainers came. It wasn’t tribal, it was federal. They entered most homes, were seen on most TV’s, and their catchphrases were on most lips – Evenin’ all; Oi’ll give it foive; her indoors; I’m in charge; you dirty old man; can you tell what it is yet? And most families and communities were ‘complicit’ in accepting them and making them what they became. It wasn’t that Rolf Harris was the favourite uncle figure for some, but that he was that for most. These people were not only part of my culture but integral to the culture of a whole country for a whole generation.

The_Rovers_Return,, I suggest is where that real sense of personal loss, that, “he was part of my childhood and growing up,” response comes from. Its that shared experience we all still had as a community, before this multi-channel, techy,tribal madness changed the world forever. My childhood without Rolf Harris is unthinkable, almost like my childhood without my family, my friends, Sunday dinners, Saturday Grandstand, Its a Knockout, Top of the Pops, Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Friday night at the chippie, 99s, Mivi lollipops, Mother’s Pride, Bisto, 2d back on every empty bottle, and the sense that it was our world and we all owned it together.

Perhaps we were over-confident, too innocent, too ready to believe the chimera that stood before us, unwilling to even imagine that Rolf Harris was capable of such things. We like the bad guys to wear black hats and be bad guys. We tell ourselves we are better than them. We like the good guys to wear white hats and be good guys. We tell ourselves these are men after our own hearts and aspire to be like them. We all like to think we know what is what, think that we are on the side of the angels. Now the illusion is shattered, and the ground shifts under us, we search for answers. How could this be? Why were we taken in? what am I supposed to think about this? We don’t want ultimate answers designed to make us wiser, more knowing about our world, that might come too close to home. We want answers that will put us back in that place of white hats and black hats. But that world doesn’t exist, it never did. Jesus makes clear why these things happen:

"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)

G K Chesterton famously remarked, “What is wrong with the world? I am wrong with the world!”

We are all wearing black hats and comparing ourselves favourably with those that are more obviously villainous does not in any measure absolve us of our coveting, slandering, gossiping, envying, lusting, foolishness…

We have a heart problem.

The good news is God has done something about it in sending Jesus to fix our heart problem. When Jesus came on the scene 2,000 years ago he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

The challenge is that we must recognise how bad the bad news is. All that we see and despise in this world of corruption, the lies, selfishness, violence, sexual immorality, is the product of men’s hearts. Since we are the problem we cannot fix things no matter how we try, and people try hard. We are lost on every level unless someone steps in and saves us from ourselves. That someone is Jesus. Do you really think we can manage without him? We might do what most people do at such times and try to ‘go back,’ tell ourselves these things are anomalies in a world of otherwise great people, our world, our familiar world of black hats and white hats. But this has happened before, will happen again, so how bad does it have to get before we stop lying to ourselves?

As we pan out and look at the wider scene we find it is much worse than the downfall of a family entertainer of fifty years. Andy Coulson, former No.10 press officer, is jailed for heinous and unforgivable crimes to do with systematic phone hacking for the Murdoch press, justice is robbed and lives are blighted. Another of the prime minister’s advisers, Patrick Rock, is on trial for making and distributing pornographic images of children. There is talk about a paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1980s, and a dossier of evidence is said to be missing.

Further afield again we find the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, under investigation for alleged influence-peddling, a teacher in France is inexplicably stabbed by a mother in front of infants, teenagers from both sides of the conflict are being kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem and Palestine, Christians are being crucified in Syria, and the self-proclaimed “caliph” of Iraq/Syria is threatening to march on Rome for Islam. This world needs a Saviour…

Rome was dubbed “The Eternal City” because of its remarkable longevity, and when it fell to the Visigoths in the fifth century, Romans were left in a deep state of shock. Their world, like ours, seemed to be falling apart. How could this happen? they asked. Some saw it as a punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religions for Christianity. In this atmosphere Augustine of Hippo wrote his seminal work, The City of God Against the Pagans. In it he argued that history was a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God, and it is the latter that will ultimately win. Why mourn for Rome, he argued, when it is the spiritual city of God that is the victor and the dwelling place of all who trust in Christ?

Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Rolf Harris is responsible for his destructive decisions, Andy Coulson for his, but what about me? Will I recognise at last that the world is the way it is, not because of people like Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson, but because of people with a heart problem – people like me? Am I going to respond to the good news Jesus brings, stop looking back at imagined halcyon days of youth, a more innocent age that never was, and repent, ask him to fix my heart, give me citizenship in his city, his kingdom? He is the light of the world, why on earth would we want to walk in darkness a moment longer?