Archive for February, 2017

How to be holy

Posted: February 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy

I suppose we are hearing this passage from Leviticus [19.1.-18] this morning because it contains the commandment,you shall love your neighbour as yourself
Jesus cites this commandment in the passage from Matthew [5.38-48] we heard earlier

But my attention was caught by the commandment at the start of the passage:
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
This is what people these days would call ‘a big ask’
Unless it simply means, God’s holiness will rub off on us, without any effort of our own
That however is not a message I find elsewhere in Scripture

There are two themes in this passage – holiness and love
Although at first you might not see it

Because the word love does not appear at all until the final verse
Even the word holy, which turns up earlier, only appears three times

What we hear again and again however is that the Lord who speaks in these verses is our God
And the themes of holiness and love are implicit in that repeated declaration

God is holy – that needs no proof. God is the One who is perfectly holy
If this God has chosen of his own free will to be our God, surely we can also believe that he loves us

This God is our God; he is holy, and he loves us
How do God’s love and holiness become the substance of his commandments for us?
Because God is holy and he loves us – therefore we too are to be holy, and we are to love him back

What does that word holy actually mean?
We think we know, but do we?
The problem is, we’re not holy enough to really know
We lack God’s goodness, therefore we lack the divine wisdom that would let us know what holiness really is

Jewish commentators have had a lot longer to think about holiness that Christian ones
But even they didn’t come up with an answer to that question until medieval times
They decided then it was a kind of separateness

God is holy, because he is separate from the world he has created
We are created; God is uncreated (today’s new word)
The created and uncreated cannot come into contact – like matter and anti-matter

God’s people are holy, perhaps not in the same way what God is holy
Our holiness is not so much what we are, but what we are called to be
We are called to be separate

We are called to be separate, in that our holy God has called us out from amongst the other peoples and established a special relationship with us
So we have a special sense of our own identity as ‘a holy people’, which rests on our recognition that God has called us

But we are still a people living in the world – our holiness must not be a cause for pride
If it is, other people will mock us and resent us – they will accuse us of being holier than thou

It’s a common phrase – I wondered where it first appeared
The internet let me down: Google offered me a choice between a science-fiction fanzine, a song by Metallica, and a body-piercing shop in Manchester

So I don’t know who first criticised so-called Christians for their holier-than-thou attitude
But I do know a holier-than-thou attitude is not helpful to us as disciples of Christ

Our sense of holiness comes from faith in our redemption through Jesus Christ
It should not make us feel that we are above the battles that others have to fight
The responsibility of being chosen by God, to be holy as he is holy, is surely enough to outweigh any sense of privilege

The consciousness of our own weaknesses should also keep us humble
Which is where love comes into the picture

The fact God has maintained a special relationship with us through all the many times we have let him down, shows that he loves us
He has proved again and again, his perfect holiness is no barrier to his loving us, who are so imperfect
Therefore we, whose holiness is so much less than his, should also be holy and loving, here on earth

To live in this world, as followers of Christ, we need both love and holiness
Holiness acts as a barrier against things that try to come between us and God
Love binds us to our neighbour

God’s commandments are an expression of these twin principles of holiness and love
Our obedience separates us – it marks us out
Our love of our neighbour mirrors the love of God, which embraces everyone

When we think of the Law, we think almost automatically of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments
I hope you noticed, we have in this passage another Ten Commandments

1 You shall be holy
2 You shall revere your mother and father
3 You shall not make or worship idols
4 You shall offer your sacrifices in the proper way
5 You shall provide for people who have nothing [leave something for the gleaners]
6 You shall not cheat or steal
7 You shall not swear falsely, especially not in the name of your God
8 You shall not deal falsely with or take advantage of your neighbour [point 6 expanded!]
9 You shall not be malicious, hateful, grudging or vengeful towards others
10 You shall love your neighbour

Someone I was reading put it very well: to break any of these commandments is to commit a crime of the heart

What do we learn when we lay this passage alongside the passage from Matthew we studied earlier this morning?
The two passages look more different than they really are
That is because they look at the same moral situations from different sides

Leviticus warns us against perpetrating crimes against our neighbour
Jesus tells us how to behave when we are the victims

Both passages tell us we must love our neighbour
But in Matthew, Jesus goes further
Jesus tells us how to respond when the neighbour we have been told to love, acts in ways which are neither loving, nor lovable

What are we to do in such cases?
We are to go on loving our neighbour, because God continues to love both them and us

It’s not our human love for one another that truly holds the world together – it’s the love God has for all of us
That love finds its human expression in the small acts of kindness and forgiveness we perform for one another

The principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth sets up a system of barter between ourselves and people who commit evil acts against us
It makes injuries into a kind of commodity we can trade in

Jesus commands us to give up that trade. He encourages us to try an experiment
Give up your entitlement to revenge: see how it feels, to forgive someone who acts against you in a way that should be intolerable
Has what they did to you made God love you any less? No

In fact, there is nothing anyone can do to you that is worse than the things you can do to yourself
To carry hate in your heart, to bear a grudge or thirst for vengeance – those are the things that truly cost us dear
Because those are the things that cut us off from the sense of the love and holiness of God

19 February 2017, St George’s, High Heaton


How to be perfect

Posted: February 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

I’d like to begin with a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough, which you probably know. It’s called The Latest Decalogue – in other words, the contemporary Ten Commandments.

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would tax himself to worship two?
God’s image nowhere shalt thou see,
Save haply in the currency:
Swear not at all; since for thy curse
Thine enemy is not the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will help to keep the world thy friend:
Honor thy parents; that is, all
From whom promotion may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Adultery it is not fit
Or safe, for women, to commit:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When ’tis so lucrative to cheat:
False witness not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Sanctions the keenest competition.
The sum of all is, thou shalt love,
If any body, God above:
At any rate shall never labour
Morethan thyself to love thy neighbour.

Clough is doing two things:
– He is satirising contemporary morals: pointing out how far the values and behaviour of respectable people fall below biblical standards
– He is also satirising the modern ideal of wisdom, which is really just a form of cunning: working out how much you can get away with in terms of behaviour, how little in terms of effort; sanctioned by the understanding that this is just what all clever people do, that only fools really try to love their neighbour

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the Sermon the Mount
Or the Sermon on
the Hill, for readers of the Good News version

This week we move on to the part editors call The Antitheses
It’s made up of a series of statements that begin, You have heard that it was said
They go on, But I say to you – Jesus sets out the terms of the law in a far more demanding way

He tells people, you have made things far too easy for yourselves
And in doing so, you have made the Law a very hollow thing

Jesus says, you have to go back to the books of the Law, to those words of Moses
Look not just at the acts that are forbidden – but at the thoughts and attitudes that lead people to commit those acts

There’s a management tool called the why-why analysis or the 5 whys
It was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, who founded Toyota
It’s a very simple tool – you look at something that went wrong, and you ask why?
Not once, but again and again, until you get to the root cause

Our customers didn’t get their deliveries this morning. Why?
Because the van broke down. Why?
Because it hadn’t been serviced. Why?
Because our service records are a mess, and no one saw the service was due . Why?
Because someone has left the company, and no one knows who is supposed to be covering
And so on, until you find what you actually need to do to stop the same problem happening again

Often you will find, the real problem is one of culture or attitudes
People aren’t cooperating; they don’t speak to one another; they’re trying to settle scores
And then you’ve got a really difficult problem to solve

That’s essentially what Jesus does
He traces the violent act back to the murderous thought
He traces the adulterous act, which is so destructive of families, back to the lustful thought

When you look at your own thinking and behaviour and ask the five whys, you begin to see the true intention of God behind the commandments
You see how gracious God has been to you – and you see the need for a change of heart
The need to turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:10, nrsv)

It’s a challenge to become a new person, to behave with a new awareness
Not on the Sabbath or on a few show-piece occasions, but all the time
The idea is to see obeying the Law as a way into the mind of God, who gave the Law
To become skilful doers of the Law

It isn’t easy to develop those skills
Think how hard it is to follow a recipe for the the first time
Going to the shops to buy the ingredients; getting home, and finding you’ve forgotten something

Starting to mix the ingredients, constantly checking the instructions
Forgetting where you were, and missing out a vital step
Ending up with something you hope is at least edible, but which certainly isn’t perfect

Compare that experience with making a favourite recipe, one you really know
How easily it all falls into place; how you can almost do it without thinking
Like a good player on the sports field, or an artist with a palette and a brush

That is skill – that is how easy and natural we should find it to follow the Law
Because it has become a part of us

The world says, no one is perfect
But Jesus says, Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect

Of course we all have days when we struggle
There are things we never seem to get right
But the more we practice, the more skilful we will be in coping with those challenges

How does what we find in Matthew relate what we find in Deuteronomy?
Jesus tells us the same thing Deuteronomy tells us
That righteousness is not a secure, settled state
It doesn’t spring from belonging to a particular people or tradition
It springs from decisions we make, moment by moment, every day

Four times in this passage, God, speaking through Moses, makes clear these are choices we face every day:
I have set before you TODAY life and prosperity, death and adversity
Obey the commandments … that I am commanding you TODAY
I declare to you TODAY that you shall perish, if you make the wrong choice
I call heaven and earth to witness against you TODAY, that I have laid out this choice before you, in words no one could fail to understand

The word today means every day; it means now; it means in every moment of your life
God constantly sets before you the choice of life with him, or a lonely death by yourself

But much more than this, the law reminds us that God is a constant presence in our lives
He is constantly there, watching over us

The Law is not just a book of rules – it is first and foremost a covenant
The covenant says that God has chosen us
He wants the best for us; he wants to bless us

Moment by moment, God wants us to know and savour the spiritual life and prosperity he has promised us
Moment by moment, he wants us to experience him as the source of every blessing we enjoy
Moment by moment, by living righteous lives, he wants us know what it means to be generous, to know what it means to love others faithfully
Because then we will be in a better frame of mind, to enjoy his divine generosity and steadfast love

Deuteronomy 30.15-20  Matthew 5.21-37

12 February 2017, Church of the Good Shepherd, Wallsend

Lofty words or wisdom?

Posted: February 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom

Righteousness and wisdom are the same thing, if we believe the Bible
I agree, that’s not what everyone thinks

Righteousness sometimes gets confused with morality, and then righteousness is all about doing what other people want and expect
Wisdom is sometimes all about being clever – clever enough to make people do what you want, not the other way round

In other words, human standards becomes the criteria for righteousness and wisdom
If you think I’m talking about the world outside church, think again

But the world’s view is not God’s view – not the view we find in the Bible
Wisdom is studying and knowing the law, because the law is the word of God
Righteousness is living according to the law, because the law is the will of God

We like to think of ourselves as people of faith
Faith is not just believing certain things
James 2.19 tells us, devils believe the same things we do – but they don’t share our faith

Faith is a passion for what we believe in
A passion for wisdom and righteousness – for the word of God, and the will of God
We are passionate people, because it is in studying the word of God, and following the will of God, that we come face to face with the love of God

The problem Paul has encountered in Corinth, which he is trying to deal with, is that the church’s standard of wisdom has been infected with a worldly understanding of wisdom
They have become intoxicated with a word which is not the word of God
And in that state of intoxication, they have begun to behave in ways which are not in accordance with the will of God
Which means, their faith has become empty
The Spirit and the love of God have drained out of their meetings and their community

How has this happened?
Strangers have wandered into the community, preaching a gospel different to Paul’s
They are very skilful speakers, and the people of Corinth have a secret love of fine words

They admire them, and they begin to copy them
They forget Paul’s gospel and they begin to judge one another on how well they speak
The ideal of being one in the love of Christ is undermined – people now pride themselves on being different – on being special

Of course the ones who speak best are the ones with the best education
In other words, the ones whose parents could afford to give them a good education
The church of Corinth is now a church where money talks, if it wasn’t already
That great love, which made everyone free and equal, is gone, or going

Paul finds his own authority as a teacher is undermined
Because he won’t join in this war of words

Joining the war would be lose-lose for Paul
If he joined the war of words and lost, he would be finished as a teacher in Corinth
Even If he won, he would have won on the wrong terms – on terms that undermined his own message

So Paul does something better. He sends a letter
It’s a letter in which takes his readers back to basics

He encourages them to refresh their memories, of how he appeared when he first came to them in Corinth
He says, I deliberately held back from trying to impress you with words
I was so confident the Spirit would speak for me, I laid aside my own wisdom
I was so confident the cross would convince you, I didn’t try to talk you into submission

Paul goes further
In this passage, far from trying to impress people with the clarity and logic of his argument, he almost seems to do the opposite

The passage is built up from the repetition of a few key words:
– God, obviously: 11 times
– Spirit, 7 times
– Wisdom, 7 times
– Human, 5 times
– Age, 4 times; 3 times as this age

That’s a lot of repetition in a short passage
But Paul makes important distinctions in the uses of these words

I hope you’ll see that Paul speaks both of the Spirit of God, and the human spirit
He speaks both of the wisdom of God, which is strongly associated with the Spirit of God; and of human wisdom, which is strongly associated with the human spirit

I’d like to remind you that the Greek word for spirit is pneuma, which also means breath
The wisdom of God is strongly associated with the divine Spirit
But the wisdom of humanity is often just words, breath – hot air

That’s why Paul doesn’t apparently use a lot of structure or rhetorical argument here
He wants his words to breath the Spirit of God, not human hot air

He seems to just repeat these key words, and let them speak for themselves
As if he’s reminding the Corinthians of the way he spoke to them about the cross when he first came to them, and when they first believed

There is a paradox here – Paul skilfully uses words to attack people he says are over-skilled in language
He uses art in praise of artlessness

What he wants to show the Corinthians is how to let God’s wisdom and the image of the crucified Lord speak for themselves
He keeps himself, his own cleverness and his own pride, out of sight

That’s a hard lesson for preachers to learn
Forget about your reputation, forget about authority
Let the word speak for itself – don’t do anything that might get in the way
It’s a lesson in humbleness

It’s a lesson for mission – the Spirit speaks for itself, if we find ways to let it
It’s we who need the Spirit’s help, not the Spirit that needs ours

It’s a lesson in authenticity – you don’t have to pitch or spin the gospel
We don’t need to manufacture holy selves to put in place of our real personalities

The marvellous thing we want people to see is what the Spirit has done
How the Spirit has worked in us and through us to change us

The work of the Holy Spirit is the thing here that is real and valuable
More valuable and real than anything people will find anywhere but in the fellowship of God’s people

The wisdom of God and the righteousness of God are the same thing
Righteousness for us is to point to the wisdom of God, not our own cleverness
Righteousness will make us wise, in what we believe, how we live, and above all, in how we speak and how we behave towards other people

1 Corinthians 2.1-11

5 February 2017, St George’s, High Heaton