Archive for February, 2015

Psalm 30

Two weeks ago we looked at a passage from Mark’s gospel
We took it apart, and found it was built up in layers
You could say it was either like a gobstopper, with the meaning hidden in the middle
Or an echo chamber, where verses on either side of the central verse echoed each other’s meaning

It’s just the same with today’s psalm: it’s built up in layers
The meaning is right in the middle
Which you should be able to see on the screen now:

7a You were good to me, Lord; you protected me like a mountain fortress.

That’s the verse in the middle of the psalm
That’s the state of assurance the writer wants us to hold on to: God is good
The Lord protects us; when he is with us, we are impregnable

But surrounding this verse is a struggle
A drama where the speaker’s faith is tested and he falls into doubt

The next verses show us how the speaker falls into complacency
He starts to think his state of happiness and security is something he has brought about himself

6 I felt secure and said to myself,
“I will never be defeated.”

God senses his complacency, and tests him, by turning way

7b But then you hid yourself from me,
and I was afraid.

Suddenly, the speaker is full of fear and doubt

What’s the answer, when you feel this way?
The answer, of course, is to turn to God in prayer
That’s what the speaker does

In the verses after the climax, after his period of doubt, the speaker looks back on how he looked for God in prayer

8 I called to you, Lord;
I begged for your help:
9 “What will you gain from my death?
What profit from my going to the grave?

In the verses before the climax, he also encourages his readers to pray
Don’t make the mistake I made; don’t forget God and his blessings

4 Sing praise to the Lord,
all his faithful people!
Remember what the Holy One has done,
and give him thanks!

So in the midst of his crisis the speaker prays, he realises God has not turned away from him after all, and he rejoices at the knowledge God has saved him

2 I cried to you for help, O Lord my God, and you healed me

This message is so important, we hear it twice – here at the beginning of the psalm, and again near the end:

11 You have changed my sadness into a joyful dance;
you have taken away my sorrow
and surrounded me with joy.

What do we do when we realise how gracious God has been to us?
We praise him
We get this important message twice: the psalm begins and ends with praise to God

1 I praise you, Lord, because you have saved me and kept my enemies from gloating over me.

12 So I will not be silent; I will sing praise to you.
Lord, you are my God; I will give you thanks forever.

The central message is the message of assurance in verse 7:

7a You were good to me, Lord;
you protected me like a mountain fortress.

Here’s something interesting to finish with:
You could re-write this psalm, and leave out all the verses that describe the struggle
Then, it would go like this:

1 I praise you, Lord, because you have saved me
and kept my enemies from gloating over me.

7a You were good to me, Lord;
you protected me like a mountain fortress.

12 So I will not be silent;
I will sing praise to you.
Lord, you are my God;
I will give you thanks forever.

You can leave out all those other verses, and the psalm makes perfect sense
In other words, there’s no need to struggle
The struggle is something we bring on ourselves, through our false confidence in ourselves and our lack of faith in God
If we are always mindful of God, we will have his assurance all the time

Mark 9.2-9 2 Corinthians 4.3-6

The western church finds it hard to make sense of the Transfiguration
The Transfiguration has always been associated with mystical practices in the Church
Especially the eastern Orthodox churches

But the Protestant church has often ignored the topic altogether:
– we want a more believable Jesus than the story of the Transfiguration offers us

The western Jesus is a practical, hard-working Messiah
– He heals the sick; he feeds the hungry;
– he relieves the poor by turning the hearts of the corrupt officials who rob them;
– he reminds people to be nice to each other
– He does a few inexplicable things, like walking on water, but if you try really hard you can explain those away

But you can’t explain away the Transfiguration
You accept it on its own terms, or not at all
And we meet it at this point every year, as we begin to prepair for Easter and we trace Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem

The gospel story says Jesus took his closest disciples to the top of a hill
Like the grand old Duke of York, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to the top of the hill, then he took them down again
It sounds like a bit of a waste of time, doesn’t it?
Shouldn’t he just have preached another sermon, or healed a few more lepers?

His clothes seemed blindingly white
He was ‘transfigured beforre them’: what does that mean?
Mark doesn’t say, but from the other gospels it appears his face shone

The two greatest Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, appeared and spoke with him
The voice of the Father sounded from the heavens
Then it all vanished and everything seemed to return to normal

What we are told about the Transfiguration is limited, and enigmatic: it is almost in code
– Only three of Jesus’ closest followers were chosen to witness this event
– Only Peter of them responded coherently at the time: and not all that coherently!
– Everything about the Transfiguration is extraordinary: the supernatural radiance, the voice from the heavens; the absence of explanation, the order to keep silent

But we know the story is important, and we know the accounts are reliable
– Because it appears in three of the gospels, the Synoptic gospels
– It appears at the same point in all three
– The point it appears is a key one in the gospel story

Why do we think of the Transfiguration at this point in the Christian year?
For three reasons:
– Because the Transfiguration marks the starting point for the final journey to Jerusalem
– It immediately follows Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah
– It is sandwiched between two passages in which Jesus prophesies his death and resurrection

These reasons are connected
Jesus reveals these connections in two prophetic statements he makes before he climbs the mountain:
– He challenges the crowd who follow him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34
– Which must have been a mystifying statement at the time
– But it meant, this is the death I am going to die. If you want to share in my life, be prepared to share in my death

– The other prophecy is, that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power”
– This obviously referrs to the three disciples chosen to witness the Transfiguration
– But more than this, it points to the central themes of Jesus’ ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near”

The Transfiguration identifies Jesus with Elijah the prophet
It also identifies him with Moses – not just Moses who gave the Law, but Moses who spoke directly with God
Moses would emerge from his audiences with God with a face so radiant he had to cover it so that others could look at him

Moses instituted the priesthood: he laid down the law for how sacrifices should be offered on the altar
He instituted the position of High Priest: the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies, once a year
The one who bore the sins of the nation and brought them before God
Israel’s high priests
experienced what it was to encounter the glory of God, to have the face or presence of God ‘shine’ on them: as it says in Numbers 6.25-6

The Transfiguration is a vision that would have converted whole populations
– and forced the religious authorities to admit who Jesus was

Instead, Jesus shares this vision with only his three closest followers
And institutes a new priesthood – the priesthood of all believers: believers in Christ
Who will shine with the same radiance: shine in the land like precious jewels
And call others to the light

The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom has drawn near
The whole edifice of the temple, its priesthood and its lawmakers has been called into question

The Transfiguration shines a light that makes the human institution of the temple transparent
And all other human institutions – just as much now as it did then

The kingdom has drawn near – the light of the Transfiguration renders our whole solid universe fragile and transparent
So we should no longer be penned in by the walls of our own churches
Because they belong to a world that is passing away

Let’s breathe the mountain air with Jesus
Let’s see the light, and hear the voice of the Father acknowledge his Son
Then let’s take up our cross, and follow him


1 Corinthians 9.16-23

What kind of Christian are you? Are you a balloon, or a brick layer?
Neither of these is strictly a biblical term, but they help us visualise different understandings of spiritual growth

Last week we heard the apostle Paul say, ‘Knowledge puffs up; love builds up’
Why does Paul place love and knowledge in opposition to each other?
Because he sees among the Christians of Corinth a group of people who pride themselves on how much they know about religion;
– yet who fail to put into practice Christ’s simple commandment to love one another

They are clever people; important people; in fact, they are puffed up with the sense of their own importance
Their sense of their own importance undermines their whole thinking about God and the church
They see their knowledge of doctrine as something that sets them above others
Something also that gives them authority within the church community

Paul says to the Corinthians, this is all wrong
It’s not enough to think you know about God; theology doesn’t make you a Christian
Unless knowledge is coupled with the sense of love, it makes no difference to our lives

We think our problem as believers is a question of conduct: disobedience to the commandments
But the real problem is, our lack of love
Knowledge of the Law is good; but it must be coupled with love for the God who gives us the commandments – otherwise it doesn’t lead to obedience

Obedience begins with humility, and humility begins with the realisation, that God loved us first – before we loved him
Humility before God enables us to be humble in our dealings with others, and that humbleness produces love for one another

We fail in obedience because our love for God and each other is neither deep nor wide enough
If we love one another, and love God in the same way he loves us, then obedience is easy; obedience is natural; obedience is the automatic reponse
Because to obey God is to be faithful to God; and faithfulness is simply one aspect of love
Love is fundamental to faith

‘Knowledge puffs up; love builds up’ – are you a balloon, puffed up with what you think you know, or a brick layer, working to build up the church?
I don’t mean the building, of course – I mean the church community, and the people within it

Paul looks at the Corinthians, especially the leading lights in their church
They may be perfect in knowledge – at least, they think they are
But when it come to the love of God and neighbour, they fall far short

Paul says to the Corinthians, learn to love – then you’ll truly know God
Start by loving each other – and learn to accept the love of others, especially those who are not like yourself
True knowledge is knowing how to love; true love is
allowing yourself to be known
Love is what builds up the community of the church

The deep things of God, which the Corinthians are so anxious to know, are not ‘facts’
The deep things of God are the senses of love and belonging
Where there is no love for one another, there is no community
Where there is no community, there is no true church
‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you have love, one for another’

Last week’s reading was about the attitudes and behaviour of believers
In the reading we heard this morning, Paul turns his attention to preachers of the gospel
He attacks the belief that the position of a teacher is one of authority: even though the Jewish word ‘rabbi’ means ‘master’

Good teaching is not an exercise of power over those who come to you seeking to learn
It’s an exercise in laying power aside – putting what you know at the service of those who want to learn from you
Understanding their wants and capacities; putting their needs first
Being prepared to explore together questions you can’t necessarily answer

As such, teaching is a work of love
And like every loving relationship, it is not a one-way street
There is a two-way interchange between teacher and student
Knowledge comes to life as it is communicated and passed on

Paul rejects the assumption that the teacher’s knowledge entitles him to make claims on others
Specifically, he rejects for himself the expectation that he should be supported by the people he preaches to
There’s nothing wrong with this belief – Jesus himself teaches it in the gospels
But Paul is objecting to the assumption that someone who does not demand this kind of support is not a ‘proper’ apostle

Paul says, yes; I have this right: I surely can’t be the only apostle expected to pay my own way
I must be able to give up my day job, if I need to: but I don’t demand to
– because if I have been chosen to proclaim the gospel; it’s a responsibility placed on me: not a burden to be laid on others
– It doesn’t matter whether churches are prepared to support me: I can’t place any human conditions on my willingness to perform the task of evangelism

Paul says, I don’t preach the gospel because of the rights it gives me
– I preach the gospel because of the obligation Christ himself has laid on me

If I don’t preach the gospel, I am the loser
Unless I preach the gospel, the gospel means nothing – even to me
If I keep it to myself, the gospel is a dead letter
And this is equally true for us

The preaching of the gospel is a work of love
In order to realise the depth and riches of the gospel, we first have to recognise the depth and variety of the world’s needs
We have to enter into the needs and situations of those we try to reach with the gospel – not call from a distance
It is the depth of those needs that reveals to us the riches of the gospel – because the gospel of Christ speaks to all of them

I have become all things to all people”, says Paul, “that I might by all means save some”
Paul says I preach the gospel to everyone, because everyone is called to be one in Christ
– I preach the gospel, knowing that the blessings of the gospel are shared equally by all who proclaim it, and all who receive it
– The blessings of the gospel are revealed and enjoyed within the community of faith created by the teaching of the gospel
– If I don’t preach the gospel, there will be no church community: and if there is no church community, there will be no blessings for me to enjoy

That’s the point for us to remember: Evangelism is not optional
Evangelism is not the search for enough new members to keep us in business
The preaching of the gospel is a work of love

Our church has no right to exist; it can only survive by spreading the gospel
A church that does not spread the gospel has forgotten how to love its neighbour
It has already ceased to live

We only truly hear God’s word when we proclaim it with love
We only experience God’s blessings when we share them with others

Deu 18.15-20 1Co 8.1-13

‘Knowledge puffs up; love builds up’
Today we think about knowledge, and knowing

Some of you might like watching The Big Bang Theory – a comedy about a group of friends who are all physicists
Sheldon Cooper is a theoretical physicist, someone entirely confident that his own field of study contains everything worth knowing, and explains everything that needs an explanation
He reads that the area where he lives is at risk from floods, so he decides to learn to swim
By looking it up on the internet

Clearly, this is not going to work
Some types of knowledge you can only acquire by throwing yourselves into things – by experiencing them

A minister told me he had banned his congregation from doing Bible study
Because Bible study had become all about downloading pages from the internet
It had become a forum for learned discussion, with no personal application
Worse than that, it had become competitive

There’s a difference between the knowledge of the head, propositional knowledge – and the deep knowledge of the heart, that comes from living out what we claim to know and believe

A lot of what Paul says in First Corinthians centres on the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper epitomises Paul’s belief in the way true Christian community builds people up in faith and love
– the way that life in Christian community brings everyone to the fullest sense of the presence and love of God they are capable of enjoying in this life

The trouble is, some people’s conceit about what they think they know and the position they believe they hold in the fellowship robs the Lord’s table of its meaning and impoverishes the whole gathering

Some people are so puffed up with what they think they know about God, their tummies are full before they come to the table
They have no room left for the wine and the bread, the blood and the body
No room left in their lives for the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit

‘Knowledge puffs up; love builds up’
The difference between love and knowledge is one of Paul’s fundamental oppositions
Our modern, western view of knowledge is far too positive
We see in human knowledge one of the most important keys to personal freedom
But when we subscribe to this view of knowledge, we repeat the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden
We believe we are capable of becoming like gods, if we succeed in knowing enough

What is knowledge, in Paul’s view?
Knowledge is a thing; it’s propositional
It’s something we possess; it’s something we acquire for ourselves, by a series of conquests
It’s something we take pride in; It’s something that contributes to our identity
It’s something that gives us personal advantage; it’s an ingredient in power relationships
It’s a source of distinction; it creates elites and exclusion zones;
It gives us influence and status; it gives us authority: ‘Knowledge puffs up’

Paul is suspicious of knowledge; but he is very positive about knowing
Verse 3 as we have it now says, “anyone who loves God is known by him.”
But t
he earliest manuscripts don’t mention God: they simply say, “if anyone loves, they have experienced true ‘knowing’”

Knowing is not the same as knowledge
Knowledge is a noun; ‘to know’ is a verb
Knowledge is a naming word; ‘to know’ is a doing word
Knowing is not a thing; knowing is a process, the process of coming to know
Knowing takes place in the heart, more than the head
It’s practical rather than theoretical; it springs from life and experience

Knowing is an attitude of attentiveness; of mindfulness of others
Knowing is about relationships; it involves others; it includes being known
It dissolves boundaries, rather than creating distinctions and differences
It creates intimacy and commitment

So knowledge is intellectual; knowing is ethical
Knowledge inspires pride; knowing inspires the sense of responsibility
Knowledge asserts itself; knowing edifies others – it builds them up
Knowing, in other words, is synonymous with love
‘Knowledge puffs up; love builds up’

So we can see now, this passage isn’t a debate about a narrow theological issue, of eating food offered to pagan gods
The meat is not what matters; it’s simply the argument that has brought a much deeper issue to the surface

It’s always dangerous to make debates in the church too narrow
It’s easy then to mistake a personal conviction for a theological truth the whole body should bow down to
It’s tempting to start throwing Bible verses at one another, and end by tearing the community apart
But this is not the mind of Christ

This is is not an argument about meat; this is a debate between two different views of freedom
One says, freedom comes through knowledge; because knowledge gives you authority and authority means your views will triumph over the feelings of others
This view of freedom says, those at the top of a hierarchy are always more free than those at the bottom
But this is a view at odds with all human experience
The top is a lonely place to be; every palace is a prison

The other view of freedom says, freedom comes through love, specifically the love of God in Christ
Because any power you wield over others usurps the power of God and comes between you and the love of Christ
Freeedom in Christ comes from being known
Love is the freedom to let your guard down
Love is community, and community is freedom
Freedom from the tyranny of your own views, and the prison of oneself

So we come back to Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper
Paul sees the Supper as a celebration of the community of the body of Christ, not a transaction between privileged individuals and their personal God

The Supper is a celebration of love
Love discerns that others need to be fed and nourished, not humiliated by the sense of their own intellectual or spiritual poverty

Love discerns that we have had too much of the wrong kind of freedom
We have had too much opportunity and too much misdirected encouragement to be ourselves
Love discerns that our greatest human need is to be reconciled, with God and each other
And our deepest human knowledge is that we have been reconciled, in Jesus Christ
We pray today to experience that reconcilation again, to sense ever more deeply our belonging together in Christ