Archive for August, 2015

23 August 2014, Heaton Methodist Church

Ephesians 6.10-20

Take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

It’s strange to think back to the hymns that were popular when you were younger. There were two we seemed to sing every week in Sunday school: “What a friend we have in Jesus”, and “Onward Christian soldiers”. We still sing “What a friend” sometimes, but I can’t remember the last time we sang “Onward Christian soldiers”. We seem to have left that way of thinking about the church militant behind.

There are people who have made a career out of spiritual warfare
They are tremendously excited by the notion that God has placed weapons in our hands that will enable us to conquer enemies much more powerful than ourselves

Perhaps the most well-known an American writer called C. Peter Wagner, who has said, “God’s people are to engage in strategic-level spiritual warfare.”

He markets himself as a kind of supernatural management guru
He founded the Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders
He has given a lot of public support to the power-prayer movement
He has written more than 70 books, mostly about spiritual warfare

His books have punchy titles, like Spiritual Warfare Strategy
Territorial Spirits; Engaging the Enemy; Supernatural Forces in Spiritual Warfare

The subtitles are even more exciting
Confronting spiritual powers; Wrestling with dark angels
Practical strategies for how to crush the enemy through spiritual warfare

I get worried by this kind of rhetoric
When I see someone getting so excited about confronting demonic forces
C S Lewis gave us a valuable warning when he said,
“there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

There are many potential dangers in fantasising about spiritual warfare
– There’s the danger of turning the cosmic battle into a personal one
– There’s the temptation to dramatise the battle: to imagine it as a kind of super computer game
– There’s an inbuilt tendency to externalise the battle: virtuous us, versus evil them

Writers like Peter Wagner tend to focus on scraps of scripture taken out of context
Ephesians 6 on the whole armour of God is one of his favourites
You could look at this part of Ephesians and see a series of isolated teachings thrown together
But actually I think there is a clear flow, from church relationships, to spiritual warfare, to prayer
And in this wider context, the whole armour of God looks differently to the way it is often presented

I want to make three points:
1 This passage is a word of encouragement to the church community. Paul is not looking for individual heroes
2 Paul does not teach how to battle evil powers like Harry Potter does. We therefore need to think deeply about what meanings we see in words like ‘strength’ and ‘power’
3 The passage actually says much more about attitude than action – an attitude expressed in the collective prayer of the church

Point one: this passage is addressed to the church community, not individuals
In the preceding verses, Paul has been talking about relationships within the church

Paul talks about relationships between
– Wives and husbands
– Parents and children
– Slaves and masters
He shows that these relationships must not be based on power and status
They should be based on love and responsibility

We should love one other as constantly as God loves each of us
We should watch over one other with the same vigilance and the same sense of responsibility God demonstrates to us in his care for creation

The verses about the whole armour of God are the climax to this passage
So the passage is not about heroism – it’s about love and vigilance

That’s our second point
Paul does not teach us how to battle evil powers in anything like the way Harry Potter does
The first verse, verse 10, says
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Actualy, the translation should use the passive voice:
Be strengthened in the Lord
As believers, we should feel strong and powerful – but not with our own strength and power

The struggle against the spiritual forces of evil is not my struggle, your struggle, his or her battle: it’s our struggle
When we read this passage, we shouldn’t think of a solitary knight riding out of the castle, with his lance, astride his charger
Paul’s words are addressed to foot soldiers – literally, the rank and file
Fighting under the leadership of Christ

The dark forces don’t try to vanquish us individually, so much as to destroy our unity
It’s like fighting in the first rank of foot soldiers – each one protects his neighbour
If the line is broken, everyone is defeated

So the passage isn’t about individual spiritual power
It’s about esprit de corps – group identity and morale; comradeship and mutual dependence

That brings me to my third point – this passage says much more about attitude than action

We know these early Christians faced physical threats
Spontaneous violence from mobs of unbelievers
Organised persecution by the authorities

A mob may literally try to break down your door
The authorities may physically imprison you and torture you

But the attacks of evil are usually much less obvious and more insidious
They attack us at our weakest points – in our ordinary lives
When we’re alone and vulnerable, when we’re stressed or under pressure
Sometimes even when we’re relaxing and thinking everything’s fine

You don’t ward off these insidious attacks with physical weapons
You protect yourselves by being vigilant

We hear people being challenged to “stand and fight”
Paul doesn’t say, “fight”: he simply says, “stand”, four times:
– v11 stand against the wiles of the devil
– v12
we have to prepare, so that we can withstand on that evil day
– v13
having done everything, we will be ready to stand firm
– v14
Therefore we should stand, and fasten the belt of truth around our waists

To stand is not an aggressive action
It’s a posture – a posture of readiness
It’s an attitude – an attitude of vigilance
Being watchful over our own hearts and minds
Being vigilant on behalf of our neighbour

When I say, ‘be vigilant’, I think I should really say, ‘be prayerful’
Three times in a couple of verses, Paul tells us to pray
– Pray for yourselves: Pray in the Spirit at all times [and] to that end keep alert
– Pray for each other:
Always persevere in supplication for all the saints

And don’t forget to ask others for their prayers
Paul sets an example by admitting his own need to receive the prayers of others
Pray also for me, he says

‘Continual prayer’ is not a figure of speech for Paul
Paul sees continual prayer as the duty of every Christian, and every church
All the good works we try to perform, we should accompany with prayer
Everything we do in Christ’s name should be a form of prayer
Prayer should be the pattern of our conscious thoughts
Even our unconscious thoughts should bear the imprint of our conscious prayers

The purpose of the whole armour of God is not to fight demons as such
It is to guard against the forces and influences that try to distract us and interrupt this stream of continual prayer
Or that stand in the way of the preaching of the gospel

So that’s Ephesians 6
All our relationships are summed up in our relationship with God, within the body of Christ
Spiritual warfare is waged collectively, by the body of Christ
Spiritual warfare is mainly about being ready – soldiers spend much more time on drills and manoeuvres than they do in battle

All the elements of spiritual warfare are summed up in continual prayer
Our prayer is not ‘warfare prayer’ against territorial spirits or demons
It is prayer for one another, and for ourselves
It is prayer that the body of Christ should be one in its love and fellowship
It is prayer that we should be bold in our proclamation of the Word, and bold in living it out


To be wise is to be thankful

Posted: August 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

16 August 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Psalm 111  Ephesians 5.15-20

Give thanks to God at all times and for everything

Have you ever walked stone cold sober into a crowd of drunken people at a party?
It’s a very disorientating experience – you feel as if you have entered a parallel universe

I had that experience one Saturday night a few weeks ago
It was the day of the Northumberland Plate meeting
So as well as the usual crowds of well-oiled young people, it was as if a hundred wedding receptions had emptied out onto the same street at the same time

I felt as if I was the only sober person left in Newcastle
I could identify with the feelings of Paul in this passage
Because drinking to excess, even in religious contexts, was common in his society
That’s why he says, Don’t be foolish. … Don’t get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery
Instead, he says, be wise – live carefully

What does it mean, to be wise?
Last week’s readings told us, “You are what you eat”
This week’s readings tell us, “You are what you do”
So don’t get stuck in the same rut other people are stuck in
Don’t blindly accept the same behaviours as normal or right

Is being wise the same thing as being clever?
There’s a sign that used to hang in American bars
It said, “If you’re so clever, how come you ain’t rich?”
Wisdom and cleverness both come through experience
But they are not the same thing: they lead us in opposite directions

Wisdom comes from submitting to God; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
Cleverness is learned by asserting yourself at other people’s expense
Cleverness is worldly; it is a species of cunning
The world’s lessons make us clever; we learn to be clever in the school of hard knocks
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”

Cleverness can make you rich in the world’s eyes
But it won’t make you rich in the eyes of God
To God, the world’s cleverness is foolishness

Foolishness is the opposite of wisdom
Foolishness is being blown around by things the world tells us are important
Wisdom is seeking the things the Bible tells us are important

The coming of Christ brings the world to a crossroads
In the Old Testament, we learn wisdom by living according to God’s commandments
God gave his people the commandments to help us understand him better
To learn about him, by living his way
In Ephesians, we learn wisdom by continually seeking the presence of God’s kingdom

Paul draws a contrast between two states of being in this passage
One he labels “drunkenness”
The other is “being filled with the Spirit”
Drunkenness is foolishness: being filled with the Spirit is wisdom

Drunkenness is letting the world draw you in and intoxicate you
It could be literal drunkenness; it could be success in business
It could even refer to forms of religion that put a heavy emphasis on ecstatic experience

Drunkenness is any form of deliberate escapism
Anything that distorts your perspective and upsets your judgement

The way to avoid drunkenness is to be “filled with the Spirit” instead
Don’t leave a vacuum in your personality that can be filled with foolishness
Drive out those other temptations, by not giving them house-room
By filling your life with godly preoccupations

So how do we fill our lives with the Spirit? Paul gives us three ways
Firstly, in worship.
We praise God together, in public: we seek the presence of God with other people

Secondly, in the recollection of worship
We should go on praising God when we get home
We should replay the hymns and songs of praise we sing together
Reflect on the meaning of those words

Thirdly, through prayer
Give thanks to God at all times and for everything

Why does Paul give us this advice at the end?
You might think it’s foolish and unrealistic – to give thanks at all times, for everything

Is it a sincere piece of encouragement?
Or just a glib formula trotted out to bring the passage to an end?
How can we possibly pray all the time, and how can we possibly be thankful for everything, even the bad things we don’t possibly think could possibly be from God?

I think Paul is quite sincere. His advice isn’t easy to follow, but it’s seriously meant
This is advice for people who regard the kingdom of God as something very real
Which I hope includes us

There are two things we have to remember about the kingdom of God:
Firstly, it is eternal, and therefore timeless
Secondly, the kingdom brings all things together, in harmony with God’s will

So when Paul tells us now, give thanks to God at all times and for everything, this is what he means
Live wisely: cultivate the awareness of God’s presence by constantly turning to him in prayer
– Act out the timeless eternity of the kingdom, by praying and giving thanks to God at all times, which means continually, in your heart
– Act out the unity and harmony of the kingdom, which unites all things under God’s perfect rule, by giving thanks for everything

Be conscious that God is with you in every moment of your life
Don’t get drunk on the things of this world
Don’t let it distract you from prayer
Don’t let it lead you into ungrateful thoughts
Try to live every moment of your life in conscious prayer and gratitude to God
This is the path that leads to wisdom

We are what we eat

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

9 August 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Psalm 34.1-8  Ephesians 4.25-5.2

Taste and see that the Lord is good

This reading from Ephesians gives us lots of common sense moral advice
– Don’t tell fibs
– Get angry if you must, but don’t make people wait for an apology
– Don’t steal
– If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all
– Recognise ill feeling towards other people in the community as the poison it really is
– Make the effort to be nice, and you might even start to feel nice

It seems like exactly the sort of thing a community of Christians needs to hear
Strains always emerge when people live very close together
Especially when they are brought together by a very demanding faith

The frustration of falling short yourself soon turns into resentment against the people around you
The time of waiting for Jesus to return stretches out longer and longer
The boredom and disappointment of waiting translates into bickering about points of worship and doctrine and discipline

Communities live better when there’s a leader people listen to
Someone who offers constant encouragement to stay hopeful, remain cheerful, cherish the original vision and sense of purpose that brought the community together
You can see in Paul’s later letters attempts to provide this kind of advice and encouragement
But there’s more in this passage from Ephesians than practical advice

All this advice is offered within the framework of Christian doctrine
And with a prophetic orientation
– a sense of living in a world that has changed, fundamentally
– in ways that other people have not yet seen
When you read these words of advice carefully, you get a sense of that context of faith

“Do not let the sun go down on your anger” – don’t go to bed without making up with one another
That’s good advice: but it’s also clearly rooted in the Jewish law against leaving a criminal hanging overnight
And that law was part of the background to Jesus’ crucifixion, and the rush to make sure he was taken down and buried before the sabbath began at sunset

“We are members of one another”
Who would say this, who had not heard the doctrine of the body of Christ?
Because we don’t belong individually to Christ
We share in Christ only as far as we are prepared to belong to one another

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up”
In other words, our conversation should not be a competition to show how clever we are
It should not be a game, to get as much useful information as we can about other people, without revealing anything of ourselves
It should not be a negotiation, an attempt to win concessions or secure influence

When we talk with other people we should always be trying to build them up
Our conversation should be ‘edifying’, in the original sense of that word
clearly, this advice is based on those familiar images of the church as a temple of living stones, with Christ as the foundation stone and the one guiding the building

Our responsibility is to cooperate with Christ’s work of building up other people
Because we all share in each other’s spiritual growth

Above all, our responsibility is to live out and make visible to others the restoration of cosmic unity and harmony between God, humanity and creation begun in Christ

That is the point of the last verse: the commandment to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”
“A fragrant offering” – like the frankincense burnt on the altar
“Sacrifice” – the shedding of blood to atone for sin

This imagery is obviously drawn directly from the worship of the temple
But it’s been transformed
We don’t offer animals from our flocks and herds any more – we offer ourselves
We don’t sacrifice to ward off God’s anger – we respond to God’s love, by offering ourselves to God, just as he offered himself for us
We don’t offer our sacrifice inside a temple – we do it in our lives, out there in the world

There were plenty of philosophies and religious cults in the ancient world based on individual conduct
– Personal worthiness
– Living a good and conscientious life
– Being a respectable and responsible citizen
– Being prepared to die a noble death for your beliefs and values
Authors in every ancient culture compiled collections of proverbs and wrote self-help books about character training

But the Christian ideal of collective, prophetic, sacrificial living is not found in paganism
This sense of collective participation of the whole church in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is what is distinctive about Christians

Christians are not bound together by a set of rules or a desire for self-improvement
Christians are bound together because they belong to Christ
Because they belong together in Christ

That is why the centre of our worship is not the sermon, but the sacrament
A simple common meal, celebrated in its essentials in the same way across the centuries by churches all over the world
A symbol of our common faith, that we will never hunger or thirst, because we have drunk the blood of the covenant and eaten the living bread

“Taste and see that the Lord is good”
These words from psalm 34 are prophetic
They challenge us today to make our sharing of the sacrament meaningful
By recognising fully what it means to be in Christ
By making the body of Christ a living reality here, in Heaton
By offering that same invitation and challenge to others around us – “you are what you eat” – so “Taste and see that the Lord is good”

2 August 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Exodus 16.9-15  Ephesians 4.1-6

Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining

Last year I think I surprised a couple of people by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche in a sermon
Nietzsche says there are two different moralities – a noble morality, and a morality of resentment
To me, the morality of Jesus Christ seems the most noble of all – the willingness to let go of anything, to surrender anything in oneself out of love for another
But what we see more often, especially in our newspapers and even in our churches, is the morality of resentment
Resentment against other people – resentment against the world for not being the way we want it

I’ve talked before about ‘resentment’ as an attitude that is hostile to spiritual growth
Today I want to introduce another term that refers to much the same thing

Robert Hughes was the art critic of Time magazine
In 1993 he published a book of essays entitled The Culture of Complaint

The subtitle of Hughes’ book was, “The Fraying of America”
Because it was essentially a polemic against tribalism:
Hughes thought America was fraying at the edges
Everybody was fighting their own corner and moaning about everyone else
They regarded everyone except their own little clique with suspicion amounting to hostility

The culture of complaint doesn’t trust politicians or scientists
It doesn’t trust anyone who claims to speak truth from a position of authority
Because those voices of authority so often say things it doesn’t want to hear

The culture of complaint is threatened by difference
It can’t accept outsiders
It wants everyone to be the same

The culture of complaint says, life would be perfect if we got rid of everything that annoys us, that irritates us, that upsets us
Everything we don’t like, everything that is not like us – everything that is not us

The culture of complaint is infantile
It’s based on solipsism – the immature perception that the world revolves around me, like the whole solar system around the sun
The assumption that everything was created for me, exists only for me, should please only me

If we were all perfect, the culture of complaint would be no problem
If we were all perfect, our complaints would be justified
If we were all perfect, the evils we saw would be real – and we might even be able to do something about them

But we aren’t perfect – not even a little bit
So our culture of complaint is not an expression of our righteousness
It’s an expression of our self-righteousness
It says, “I shouldn’t have to suffer, and you shouldn’t be able to make me suffer”
“You have no right to make me suffer – because deep down I am better than you”

Clearly therefore, our impulse to complain is a failure of love for our neighbour
Beneath that, it betrays our secret inner rebellion against God

That’s what this reading from Exodus is about
The people’s spirit of complaint blinds them to God’s presence and distorts their memory
It creates a fantasy where they actually believe they lived in luxury in Egypt
So they didn’t need Moses to rescue them
All they need to do now, to return to their lives of ease and their diet of imaginary cucumbers and onions, is to get rid of Moses

The reality is of course, if they get rid of Moses, the inconvenient human voice, they get rid of God
Our reading misses out some verses, but this is what Moses says to the people:
Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

If we want to hear from God, we need to address our own culture of complaint
Our desire for comfort, our desire to be right, our desire to have our own way
Jean-Paul Sartre was wrong. Hell is not other people; hell is being trapped inside ourselves, isolated from our neighbour, separated from God