Archive for July, 2017

The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you

The question I want to ask you this morning is, Where do you live?
For the original readers of this passage (Romans 8.1-11), the answer is simple: we live in the imperial city of Rome
But where do they truly live? And where do we, the modern readers of this letter, live?

If you ask me where I live, the answer is simple: Heaton, in Newcastle
I’m clearly not there at the moment, but that’s where I think of myself as living

If you ask me where I’m from, I wouldn’t say Newcastle
I’d say Dunfermline – somewhere I haven’t lived since 1979
I’ve lived in other places far longer than I lived in Dunfermline – I’ve moved on

What I wonder is, how much of me remains behind there; and how much of Dunfermline has come with me
You can take the boy out of Dunfermline – but can you take Dunfermline out of the boy?

Where do you live? This is a question churches have to ask themselves too

In my last year of training I had to write a dissertation based on some “original research”
I studied the experiences of three congregations who left their buildings
One moved into a chapel that was part of a Roman Catholic church
Two moved into local community centres

Where do you find a church that doesn’t have a building?
The church comes alive whenever the congregation gathers for worship
But where does it live during the times in between?
And does it only live within those four walls?

One of the things I read for my dissertation was a work by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, called (in English) Building, Dwelling, Thinking
It’s compulsory reading for architecture students (bet they hate it)

Heidegger points out there are lots of buildings in our world, but only some of them are dwellings
A dwelling is a building where someone lives – a house, not an office, shop, factory, or garage

Dwelling is living, not just in the sense of survival, but in the sense of being
Heidegger says, Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth

The German word for dwelling, bauen, is related to the other German word nachgebour, which means neighbour
That leads us to another point: dwellings are not usually isolated buildings – they stand with others
So to dwell is not just to live in a building – it implies we dwell in a community

Dwell is one of the most significant words in this passage from Romans:
v9 you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
v11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead
dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you

Some Bible translations including the Good News say live, but dwell means much more
Dwell is the translation of the Greek word oikeo
Paul’s letters use it nine times – no other NT writings use it at all

Paul uses oikeo in 1Cor specifically in reference to the married relationship
Everywhere else he uses it, he is talking about the spiritual presence that dwells in us
So once again, as it is for Heidegger, dwelling is an experience of community

What is this spiritual presence that dwells within us?
Either the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of sin or death or slavery: that’s the choice

The most important word in this passage isn’t actually dwell
The most important word is a much smaller word
A very common word – it occurs more than 2700 times in the New Testament

That crucial word has just two letters in English: that little word is in
v1 those who are in Christ Jesus
v2 the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus
v3 -4 He condemned sin in the flesh so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us
v8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God
v9 You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you
v10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness

You can probably tell, Paul uses the simple, common word in with a special meaning

v9 is the pivotal verse. It’s in two parts, and the word in occurs twice.
– In order to live, we must be in the Spirit
– For us to be in the Spirit, the Spirit has to be in us: which means, Christ has to be in us

Paul talks interchangeably about being in the Spirit, or the Spirit is being in us
He is not just being careless

We often talk about the Spirit as a substance poured into us – as if we were a hollow shell
But it’s just as legitimate to say that we have to be poured into the the Spirit
It’s a mutual thing

1Corinthians makes this easier to understand
Paul uses dwelling in 1Corinthians as a word for the married state
If a believer has an unbelieving partner, and that partner is happy to dwell with them, that’s fine: God will respect that union and bless and even save them both

In the same way, if we want to be saved, the spirit has to dwell in us
But we likewise have to dwell in the spirit, in an intimate communion like marriage

God does not offer this intimate spiritual relationship on a one to one basis
We enter into this spiritual communion by joining the body of Christ – his Church

The true source of life is spiritual community with God through the Spirit of Christ
We find that idea not only in Paul’s letters, but the gospel of John and his other writings
Through the spiritual community of the church, the church family, the body of Christ, we participate in the life of the Trinity
Our God himself is a spiritual community, a family
If we share in Christ, who is one person of the Trinity, we share in all three

Paul talks of us as the adopted sons or children of God
He didn’t pull this idea out of thin air
It’s based on God’s promises to Abraham, and specifically on a prophecy in 2Sam 7.14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son
These Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who makes possible our own adoption by God the Father

So let me ask again, where do you live?
We all live in earthly houses, on earthly streets
But the place we dwell is with God, in the body of Christ
If we are in Christ, we are more than conquerors, and the world itself cannot contain us

16 July 2017, St George’s, High Heaton


Living in sinless simplicity

Posted: July 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Last week I preached on Romans 6
The theme was freedom and slavery – freedom under the lordship of Christ, contrasted with slavery to sin, which promises freedom but gives the opposite

If we want to live under the lordship of Christ, which I assume we do, how do we go about it?
How do we make the change?
How do we escape from our bondage to sin, and accept Christ as Lord?

Paul talks in Romans 6 about the sacraments, and especially about baptism
We normally get a certificate at baptism, but baptism is not about contracts and signatures
Baptism is the sign and also the spiritual moment of dying to sin, and rising to life in Christ

Baptism is also the moment we enter into membership of the church
What Paul is underlining is, that you cannot live the Christian life alone
Faith is sustained and nourished and grows within the body of Christ – in the church

The problem Paul wrestles with consistently on behalf of his readers is the fact that we continue to sin after we have come to faith
After we have entered into new life through baptism

The new life turns out to look quite a bit like the old one
We make changes, but they stop a long way short of the total transformation we would love to see

In baptism the created image of God is restored in us
But somehow we do not become perfectly Christ-like
We struggle, even within the church, to love and accept everyone the way we should
Our own behaviour causes other people more problems than it should

Paul knows this, and wrestles with it in our passage this morning (Romans 7.12-25)
He tries to answer that vital question, where do we get the assurance and the strength to live as we want to live – as Jesus wants us to live?

It’s a real struggle – the passage is very confusing
Is Paul speaking in his own person? Is he making a confession?
Is he saying he still struggles with sin and temptation?
That seems unlikely – when he talks about his old life in Php 3.6 he says he was, as to righteousness under the law, blameless

Perhaps he is condemning his attitudes then, in order to warn people who are still pursuing a similar kind of legal righteousness now
He could be saying to them, don’t get bogged down like I was before Jesus dug me out

Or maybe this is a ‘speech-in-person’ – a portrayal of someone else’s thoughts
Is Paul talking about the struggles every believer has with temptation?

Is Paul talking to Christians who think they have passed beyond the law?
If he is, he is reminding them, that Christ fulfils the law – but he does not do away with it
Our freedom in Christ is not freedom to do anything we like

Conscience remains a fact of human experience
We might escape damnation but we can’t escape the feeling of guilt
To know we have sinned and feel unable to stop sinning is a wretched state

I don’t know if there’s enough evidence in the passage for us to choose among these interpretations, decisively
But I think we may well recognise in all of them a problem of conscience that is very common among Christians, and often a cause of despair

Paul shows us in dramatic fashion this state of conflict between inner beliefs and outward behaviour:
v15 I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want [to do]
v18 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it
v19 The evil I do not want is what I do
v23 I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind

What is the problem? What is the cause of this anguish?
The mistake we make is to confuse sinful acts, and the sinful state

Christ’s resurrection redeemed us from the sinful state
But in this world we continue to commit sinful acts
We struggle by our own efforts to make ourselves perfect people – and of course, we fail

The more we concentrate on our failures, the more hopeless we feel
The more hopeless we feel, the more bitter we become
The more bitter we become, the harder it is to live at peace with ourselves or anyone else

What we should remember is, no matter how imperfect we were and still are in ourselves, God has accepted us
He has accepted us, in Jesus Christ
The perfection of Jesus Christ makes up for all our imperfections

We go on sinning – but for those acts of sin, there is repentance and forgiveness
What was lacking until now was the possibility of final release from the sinful state
In other words, the state of alienation from God
In Christ, we are no longer alienated from God – that separation is overcome

Perfection lies in Christ – not in ourselves. This is the realisation that transforms our lives
Paul shows us this realisation in that breakthrough moment in verse 25
That triumphant declaration: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

It almost seems like cheating – has Paul really solved the problem of our guilty conscience? But it genuinely is that simple

I compare it to that moment near the end of the Book of Job
Job has argued with divine justice and demanded a reckoning with God himself
His false friends have tried to convince him that all God’s ways are just, and he must have done something deserving of punishment

These arguments are no consolation to Job
Like Paul before his conversion, he believes he is blameless under the law
And the problem is not just his own suffering – it’s the whole human predicament

Suddenly, God breaks through, and Job surrenders unconditionally; he worships God
That is the moment we have to arrive at
The moment when we stop trying to make sense of what God has done in Christ to save us
When we believe that our salvation is real, and unconditional, and we fall down and worship

That is the challenge of faith – to accept for ourselves what God has done in Christ to save us
Accept it, believe it, and live gratefully because of it – live generously , in the spirit of the love that redeemed us

9 July 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace

The 18th century poet Alexander Pope once gave the Prince of Wales a dog as a present
On its collar, he had engraved a little rhyme he had written
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew [Kew being at that time a royal palace, not just a garden].
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

The joke is, we are all dogs – we all have a master, whether we know it or not
We think we are smarter than a dog, but at least this dog knows who its master is
Who is our master? If we don’t know who our master is, what does that say about us?

Freedom is a modern myth; we all serve someone or something
We are never more powerless than when we don’t know who is tugging our lead
Have we chosen our master, or have we been mastered without knowing it?

No matter what political or social thinkers say, we are all in bondage to sin
Freedom comes through Christ – but only through accepting the lordship of Christ
When do we come under the lordship of Christ? When we are baptised into Christ

In the earlier part of this chapter, Paul tries to explain what happens when we are baptised
For Paul, baptism is not just a public declaration of faith
Baptism is not like having a wash – Paul hardly ever talks of it that way

Baptism is a re-enactment in the believer’s life of Jesus’ death and resurrection
Just as our gathering around the Lord’s Table is a re-enactment of the Last Supper

Baptism is the death of the old life and resurrection into the new
It is putting off the old body of mortality and putting on the new body of Christ’s immortality

Baptism is an act of obedience, proclaiming a new faith that makes a new kind of obedience possible
In the life we still lead on earth, it is the opportunity to leave behind the old things and embrace the new
And that is really the point – we have a choice
While we remain in this world, all the old temptations are still there, and still available to us

Baptism is a moment of choice – a moment of freedom, where we can seize hold of what Jesus has done for us
Accept his lordship over us, and our share in the freedom he was won for us
Or go back to the old ways, and allow sin to re-assert its rule

I’m sure we recognise this rhetoric of choice
It wasn’t long ago, back in February, we were reading Deuteronomy and looking at the choice God offers his people in the covenant he makes with them

Obey, and enjoy God’s blessings; refuse to obey, and suffer his curses
What the people of Israel did not have, was a way of being as obedient as God demanded

In Jesus Christ his Son, God offers us an example of perfect obedience
A new choice – whether or not to share in the benefits of Christ’s obedience
The choice between sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Rom 6.16)
And means of grace, offered through the life of the church, to help us make the choice

Everything in this passage hinges on the lordship of Christ
Lordship is a difficult concept to grasp, in a democratic society like ours
Even in a married relationship, we hang onto the idea of rights and the notion of choice

When we live under the lordship of someone else, we have no rights and no choice
But what Paul is saying is, we never had those things anyway – they were an illusion
Admit you are a slave, as long as you live in the world – and decide whose slave you are

All earthly lordship is sin, of one form or another
Greed and lust – the lordship of physical appetites
Envy, covetousness and theft – the desire for lordship over property
Addiction and dependency – the lordship of substances that control our moods and our minds
Ambition and pride – the desire for lordship over people
Hatred – the desire for lordship over people expressed in the impulse to kill and destroy

Christ suffered at the hands of powerful people – religiously powerful, politically powerful
He suffered at the hands of those who exercised the power of lordship over others

He died at the hands of those powerful people
He suffered the worst that earthly lordship could do
The earthly desire for lordship that set itself against the loving will of God himself

And in his resurrection, through the power of the Spirit that raised him, Jesus destroyed that power of earthly lordship, the lordship of sin
He destroyed it in the name of the Father, through his own obedience to his Father’s will

In the victory of Christ’s resurrection, the lordship of sin and death was done away with forever – for anyone who accepts the lordship of Christ
Jesus asks us to embrace his victory, by accepting his lordship for ourselves

How do we do that? Is it a moral decision? Is it an effort of our own will?
No – it was the efforts of our own will that got us into this mess to begin with
More of the same won’t make things better

The lordship of Christ is the headship of Christ
To accept the headship of Christ, we must be incorporated into the body of Christ
By which, of course, we mean the fellowship of all believers – the church

The way we are incorporated into the body of Christ is through baptism
The way we are fed and nourished in the body of Christ is through the Lord’s Supper
In other words, all through this talk of freedom and slavery, life and death, wickedness and obedience, Paul is talking about the sacraments

I would never want to make something too mysterious of the sacraments
They are mystical – they have a spiritual significance far beyond what we see
But they are also gifts, geared to our own ability to receive and enjoy them
Intended to communicate to us, through very simple things, not just a better understanding of God, but something of God himself

We share the sacraments as an act of obedience – obedience to our Lord, Jesus Christ
But also as the means of grace
A reminder of the grace that made formal acts of obedience superfluous and unnecessary, calling us instead to respond to our God in gratitude

Paul asks, Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom 6.15)
Of course not – the lordship of Christ is not the freedom to sin, but the freedom to live in obedience to God in a new way
Sin is no longer our master, because Jesus Christ is our Lord

Our public acts of worship, our celebrations of the sacraments, are a declaration of that freedom, a celebration of that freedom
An expression of our determination to offer that freedom to others in Christ’s name
And our determination never to re-enter the state of slavery to sin and death

2 July 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved

Today we look at two very different passages
One from the Old Testament (Gen 21.8-21), the other from the New (Mat 10.24-39)
One, a story about the ancient origins of the people of Israel
The other, the record of a difficult teaching given by Jesus

Two very different passages
But with a common motif – the motif of division

Believe it or not, not everyone takes God seriously
Most people do not ask themselves at every moment of decision, what is the will of God here?
Most people do not rush to embrace Jesus Christ as their Saviour; they are not even conscious of making a choice

Divisions are part of God’s plan – but divisions arise from human judgements and decisions
These judgements and decisions have consequences – here and now, and in the end before God

Abraham and Sarah have a promise from God
They are going to have a son, even though they are both far too old

God’s word is not good enough for them – they decide to rush things
Perhaps because they are so old, perhaps because God makes them wait
They try to force God’s hand – they put him to the test

They force Sarah’s maid servant to become pregnant by Abraham; she bears Ishmael
But then of course Isaac arrives, the true son of the promise

Conflict is inevitable, Sarah quarrels with Hagar, and Abraham quarrels with Sarah
To put these quarrels in their context – the first argument between partners comes in Genesis after Adam and Eve defy God by eating the fruit

Quarrels arise from human pride and selfishness
Pride and selfishness lie at the root of every human sin
Every act or thought of defiance against God

Hagar and Ishmael are driven out into the desert
Did Abraham and Sarah assume that they would die there?
Of course, Hagar and Ishmael do not die. God protects them

There are actually two versions of this story in Genesis
The first one is in Genesis, where Sarah drives out Hagar while she is still pregnant

The second one is here, in Genesis21
The confusing thing here is that according to the dates we are given, Ishmael must be a teenager
But Hagar carries him and lays him under a bush as if he were still a baby

But what happened at the time is less important than what flows from these events
God promises that Ishmael, like Isaac, will be the father of a great nation
That nation is the Ishmaelites, who rank among the historic enemies of Israel
A bedouin people, desert dwellers who prey on the settled farmers and shepherds of Israel

In other words, by their deliberate actions against God’s will, Sarah and Abraham do not just create a domestic quarrel
They create a division among the descendants of Abraham
They make a rod for the backs of the whole people of Israel

Jesus is also talking about division in our reading from Matthew this morning
According to Matthew, Jesus gives this teaching at a pivotal moment in his ministry
His teachings are welcomed by the people; but not by the Pharisees and scribes

It is becoming harder and harder to ignore the claim to divine powers revealed in his miracles and in what Jesus says about them
So the Pharisees and religious authorities are starting to accuse him of blasphemy

Jesus empowers his disciples for ministry
Verse 10.1 tells us, he gives them authority over unclean spirits, and the power to heal all kinds of sickness and disease
He sends them out to gather the lost sheep of Israel

Jesus instructs his disciples before sending them out
He not only gives them practical advice; he tells them what kind of reception to expect

He tells them they will face hostility and persecution – even from close family
People will say the worst imaginable things about them

In other words, the preaching of the gospel will cause division
It will cause division when the disciples preach it, just as much as it does when Jesus himself preaches it
That division will provoke acts of violence against them, and even death

It makes me wonder, what is this preaching that will arouse such hatred?
Who will this hatred come from?

The gospels show us, that the hatred only comes from a few
It comes from the Pharisees, and the religious authorities

Why do they hate the teachings of Jesus so much?
Because the teachings of Jesus reveal the falsity of their own teachings

God’s word says, don’t spend time serving an institution that only serves itself
Don’t spend your resources on a dead spiritual body, a priesthood that enriches itself and keeps you on the spiritual breadline
It’s an uncomfortable teaching for people who have given their lives to that institution – as leaders, priests or worshippers
It’s a searching word, that demands a decision one way or the other

What Jesus says here I think is reflected in how Hebrews 4.12 describes the word of God:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

People fear the word of God not for what it reveals about God, but for what it reveals about them
God’s word divides the true from the false – spiritual things from the things of the flesh

God’s word will always be uncomfortable for many, and intolerable for some
Jesus warns the disciples, if you preach my word truly, you may find yourself in a very lonely place

But Jesus assures the disciples that God will be watching over them
And so they should persist in spreading the gospel, no matter what happens to them

It is so easy to keep quiet about the gospel
We fear the reactions of people who will realise for the first time how different we are
We fear rejection
We fear the reactions of people who might think we are judging them – even though we admit, we are all in need of God’s grace and mercy

But to speak for Jesus Christ on earth, is our best and even our only guarantee that he will speak for us before God in heaven
That will be the ultimate division – between those who testified and those who did not
Between those who showed themselves worthy of Christ, through their love of Christ – and those who did not
To love Christ and speak for Christ on earth – that is the test of worthiness

25 June 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

How to be a holy nation

Posted: July 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

We find ourselves looking this morning at a very familiar Old Testament scene
A scene we might picture ourselves colouring in when we were very small, in Sunday School
Moses speaking in the wilderness to the people God brought up out of Egypt (Exo 19.2-8)

Or rather, Moses being briefed by God as to what he should say to them
Maybe that scene’s less easy to picture
What does God look like? What colour is he?

It’s easy to bog ourselves down in questions about what God is like
We do not need to know what God is like, in that abstract sense

The face of God will not be revealed to us like the face of the next James Bond
Our relationship with God is nothing like our relationship with celebrity

Because our relationship with God is a covenantal relationship, what we know of God is revealed through his covenant with us

So what we really know about God boil down to two things
– What he does for us
– What he asks of us in return

What does God do for us? Everything
Past, present and future – has done, is doing, will do – everything
The will of God embraces everything, and the will of God is all for our good
That consistent will for our good is unfolded all through the story the Bible tells

What does God ask of us in return?
Three months after God brings his people out of Egypt, he takes Moses apart for a briefing
He tells Moses what to say to the people of Israel, about what he expects from them

What does God say through Moses?
God is not like Pharaoh; you cannot measure God’s demands in so many thousand mud bricks
You cannot say, we’ll do so much, and then God will be satisfied

God’s demands are not quantitative – they cannot be measured
God’s demands are qualitative – he demands that we should be different

What does God want from his people? How should they be different?
He says, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

What does that mean? Let’s take it in reverse order
Let’s first of all understand, these words are addressed to us as much as to ancient Israel

The church is not a nation in the way Israel was a nation
But we are a chosen people – a people with a common ancestor
That ancestor is Jesus Christ, just as the common ancestor of Israel was Abraham

What does it mean, to be holy?
It means, set apart for a sacred purpose
It’s not we ourselves who are special – it’s our holy purpose
That sacred purpose is to proclaim the kingdom

What do we mean by the kingdom?
It’s not a place, it’s not a territory; but neither is it an entirely mystical entity
The kingdom isn’t something that will only come into being at the end of the time
Although it will only be fully revealed at the end of time

The kingdom of God is simply the rule of God
The kingdom is at hand when people hear the word of God
When they fall in love with it to the point, that the only thing that makes them happy is to obey it

How will others hear the word of God? That is the job of God’s priesthood
So much of the talk we’ve heard about kingdoms and nationhood before and after the Brexit vote has been about barriers and restrictions
The kingdom of God is nothing like that
The kingdom of God welcomes every foreigner, every stranger

That brings us to consider the first important word here, priestly
We are to be a priestly kingdom

What is the role of a priesthood?
Part of it is done behind closed doors – the celebration of sacred mysteries
But I think the other half of the role is more important for us – the role of standing before God on behalf of the people
In other words praying for them – which we cannot do unless we know what their needs are, and unless we are prepared to be part of the answer to prayer

To be holy means being set apart – but it doesn’t mean we should keep ourselves apart
Too much of our priesthood takes place behind closed doors
Too little of it takes place outside, among other people
Too much of our priesthood is dictated by custom – doing things for their own sake
Too little of it is guided by prayer and a passion for people outside

Priests do not exist to serve one another – they exist to serve God
Priests serve God by serving the people in his name
And they serve the people by serving God in their name

Let’s take two examples – Street Pastors, and the Heaton Festival

Street Pastors help people in need, without ever asking if people deserve our help
Because Jesus didn’t ask if we deserved his help – he only saw that we needed it

We put on the Heaton Festival without ever asking whether the community in Heaton deserves a festival
We do it as a gift – as a pouring out of the blessings God has poured out to us

Because we offer them as a gift, without making any demands in return, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival reach people who might never come to church
They meet immediate needs or wants, but they speak to the deeper needs which only the gospel of Christ can satisfy

Because we do them outside the walls, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival are highly visible – you can’t miss them
Because people can see these things, they encourage people to ask why we do them
Which allows us to answer, because we are Christians

Because they are so different from most of the things churches usually do, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival transcend narrow concepts of identity
They step over the boundaries that make us and the people outside the church strangers to one another
They make the love of God visible and tangible – they make it something people can see, something they can touch and be touched by

God’s covenant with us is a one-sided thing
His call for a people to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation will be answered

What’s in it for us? We will know God by honouring his covenant
Knowing God and the love of God is the only thing worth wishing for
It’s the thing we were made for

God honoured his covenant by giving his Son
Nothing we could ever offer would cost that much

In fact, nothing we offer costs us anything at all – because nothing we have is truly ours
God himself makes that clear when he says in verse 5, Indeed, the whole earth is mine

So our whole lives should be a giving back to God of what is already his
And in that priestly offering, and in the living presence of the holy nation of God in their midst, other people will see that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand

18 June 2017, St George’s, High Heaton