Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A reason for living

Next week I am starting Simply Jesus which is all about - well - simply looking at Jesus Christ and what he has to say about life, death and everything in between and beyond, in his own words and through his own life. People have always asked this one important question in every age: "What is the reason for living?" Here is one of my favourite and most lucid preachers/speakers Tim Keller speaking to the subject. I hope it will whet your appetite for pursing the answer, if you have not already done so.

The Bible and Authority

The following talk is by John Stott who argues that the authority of the Church should be found in the Bible. He rightly points out that the culture in which we live in is, in may ways, opposed to authority. The important thing is freedom. But, Stott argues, what we should be against is not authority but authoritarianism. We need authority - proper authority - under which and by which to live. That comes,for the Christian at least, from the Bible. It is very much a word for today, and in particular, a word for the Church.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Only human

One of the things I value about the Bible is that it is sometimes a source of consolation and encouragement when I feel down or in difficult circumstances. Then I find a verse or a phrase that really gives me a lift and helps me to look at the situation I am in with the assurance that God understands and forgives.

Sometimes I find encouragement however, not in looking at the verses in the Bible but at the characters, the saints and heroes and heroines of the faith. People like Abraham or Moses or Mary or Paul. But it is not their triumphs that inspire me, so much as their flaws and failures, because if God can use them - and He did - He can use me.

I mention this because sometimes I mess up in life, and ministry, and do and say things I shouldn't. As someone who should be an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:3) I am aware that I do from time to time fail or express frustration and sometimes anger when things don't work or go according to plan. Vicars (and Ministers) are sometimes known for being long-suffering due to the various demands of the Church in modern life, but the same also can be said of congregations and I am aware that over the years the churches I have served have had to show great love and patience with me.

So if anyone is offended by some remarks I have made in frustration recently - and you know what I am talking about -  I ask your forgiveness. Please bear with me. Forgive me. Pray for me.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

When I feel most alive

One last bit of self-indulgence. Here is yet another octogenarian preacher who passed away in recent years, Rev John Stott. All of the three are Anglican and all three have been my mentors over the years.

William Carey and evangelism

Here is yet another of my favourite preachers, also in his eighties speaking about evangelism and William Carey

How to pray for God's work

As a preacher I have many heroes I look up to. One of them is Rev Dick Lucas who is now in his eighties and still preaching strong. He was Vicar of St. Helen's, Bishopsgate, London. Here he is preaching about prayer.The sermon starts about half way through after worship and prayer at the beginning.

Not evangelism but discipleship

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Church of God

The following sermon was preached at St. James' Church on Epiphany 2 on the 19th January 2014. The text was 1 Corinthians 1:1-9


Part of my job as Area Dean is to provide cover for services of empty parishes in the Swansea Deanery. It is also to keep things running smoothly until the new Vicar arrives. This is easier said than done sometimes as there can be those in the parishes who complain, or struggle to get their voices heard so that "when the cat is away the mice will play". So if voices were suppressed when there was a Vicar, now is their chance to maybe speak out and try and have the church the way they want it. So its not easy.

But any problems I have so far experienced is nothing beside the problems Paul had. Sure there can be the  usual moaning and complaining here at St. James. That is, as far as it goes, pretty standard if you want to change things. But for Paul it was much worse. On top of the usual moans and groans there were rival factions and bitter quarrelling (1 Cor 3:1ff) with some even taking one another to court (1 Cor 6). Some were sleeping with prostitutes and one was even sleeping with his father’s wife! At one stage things were so bad that Paul says that some of the guilty had received Communion and become “weak and sick, and a number of them had (even) fallen asleep.” i.e. died! (1 Cor 11:30) So reading Paul’s problems I give thanks for my own!

Now if you had to write a letter to the Corinthians what would you say? The temptation would be to lay into them and say how terrible they were, or even wipe your hands of them altogether. And Paul does later take them to task.
But interestingly he doesn't start like that. What does he do?

First he reminds them who is in charge
“From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (verse 1)

Christian communities run differently to other organisations, social organisations or communities. They are not democracies—one person one vote - they are 'theocracies'. (Democracy wouldn't have worked in Corinth anyway—too many factions). Christian communities work differently. They are led from the front by a leader - an apostle or pastor or priest “of Jesus Christ” and who is there “by the will of God.”  This leader has been called and set apart by God to lead his people just as Paul had and others before and after him. Jesus himself is our model here. He was sent by the will of God not the will of man. It was not by virtue of a democratic vote but by the will of God. In fact if you were to take a vote among the Jews he would never have got elected!

I remember in St. Mary’s Clydach and our much loved Vicar moved. The Church had thrived under his ministry and we wanted God to send someone to build on his work. So the Parish prayed for successor. They prayed that he would be of God’s choosing but at the same time left God in no doubt about sort of person should choose. Another one exactly the same as the last please.

Now prayer is not democratic and so God exercised his sovereign will and sent us someone
who didn't fit our criteria but fitted his. The people weren't happy and started complaining in their pews. But how dare we. It was God’s choice. His calling and His will. Whether we liked it or not the person who came was “an Apostle (leader) of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To complain against him therefore was to complain against God. And to oppose him was, in effect, to risk opposing the One who sent him. God raises up and sends leaders. We should not oppose them provided they do not teach those things which contradict or deny God and His word. Until then God is in charge through his appointed leader.

Second, he reminds them who they are.
There are two aspects to this:
First, reminds them that they are “the church of God.” 
The word ‘church’ is a secular word which means an assembly or congregation of people called together by someone. The early Christians took the word and applied it to themselves when they gathered together for teaching, worship and prayer. They had been 'summoned' together by God. The first ‘church’ in the Bible therefore is the people of Israel who were chosen and called by God. We too are therefore the people of God gathered in an assembly or church. It is an important point to remember particularly with the forthcoming changes in the Church in Wales.

I once read the following by former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey which speaks to this subject: He said:

“When...we say that we believe in the church, we do so only and always in terms of our belief in God who judges and raises up. The mistake (made)..through the ages has been to believe in the Church as a kind of thing-in-itself. The apostles never...did so. Their faith was in God, who raised Jesus from the dead.” (see "I believe in the Church: David Watson page 18)

What he is saying is that whenever we talk about church we talk about a thing - a building, an organisation, with structures, staff, administration and budgets. By doing so we make it - in Ramsey's words - into a “thing-in-itself”.  It becomes something solid and unyielding, an edifice of some kind. It loses its person-hood. Its bricks and mortar, stone and wood, management structures and financial reports. This came home to me the other day when I was asked whether I could climb any higher up the career ladder in the church? What was the next step up? No the church is personal not material. In fact according to the Bible the Church has two faces which make it so. One human and other divine.

First, it has a divine face is the face of God or Christ (Paul later calls it the “body of Christ).
Our identity therefore in the first place should be more concerned with ‘who’ we worship, not ‘where’ or even through 'what' we worship. Once we lose sight of God and fix our attention on other 'things' - whether they be a building or the maintenance of a structure or organisation or even types of service - whether Holy Communion or Morning Worship - we are in trouble. Our attention is one someTHING rather than someONE.

That may be why we in the Church in Wales are having such a hard time at moment. There is decline, financial hardship, falling numbers etc. Is it because we have lost sight of God and instead serve things -
buildings, systems etc.

It is still one of the most common criticisms made by youth today - those who care enough to think about it - is this - they" don’t believe in organised religion". What they mean is that we have made church about ‘things’ and therefore about power. Our sad, lonely, lost world needs Jesus and what do we give them but ‘appeals’,
building programs and management structures.

Second, the church has a human face. The face of people like you and me.
The early Christians never went to Church. Why? They were the church. Jesus promised “Where two or three gather in my name, there am in in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) What he is saying is that where he is the object of people's prayers, people's worship and people's love, where he is the focus of their expectations and attention and where he is held up and esteemed and proclaimed, there is the church. Which begs the question who or what is our centre of attention every Sunday? The length of sermon? Mistakes in newsletter? No Holy Communion? Unknown hymns? Missing furniture?

Secondly Paul reminds them of how does God sees them. He calls them those who are “in Christ Jesus.” They are the "sanctified" ones or "saints".

Now we have a problem with the word 'saint' because it  has come to mean a kind Rolls Royce version of Christian as opposed to Ford Anglia with wind down windows and dubious suspension. A Saint for most people are those with a capital 'S', who sits at the top of the Christian ladder not the first rung! But Paul disagrees. He talks about Christians as those who are already “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”

To be sanctified in most cases means to be saved and made holy. Before Jesus was revealed as Saviour and you were saved by grace through faith, all God saw when he looked on you and me was sin and imperfection, people who were far away from Him. Cut off from him. But when He opened our eyes to see His Son as He is, we were saved and placed “in Christ”. So now when God looks at us, he sees you and I through the person of his son. He sees superimposed on us - as it were -the character and perfection of his Son.

Let me give you a simple explanation. Here are my sermon notes - white paper covered with black strokes, which represents the sinful me and you. Here on the other hand is my Bible - the Holy Bible - representing Jesus in all his holiness and perfection. If I take my notes and place them in the Bible the notes disappear and all you can see is the Bible. When you and I are saved we are, says Paul, now "in Christ". God no longer sees our sin and imperfection, but Jesus His son and His perfection and sinlessness. And so he accepts us "in Christ".

The Bible, talking about what has happened, says of the Christian: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) We are saved and sanctified through and in Christ. God looks on us and no longer sees our sinful selves, he sees Jesus.

But we all know from experience that we still sin. We are still selfish, resentful sometimes, envious and angry and imperfect. So Paul adds to the fact that we are now sanctified the calling "to be saints". "Called to be" means that we now have to live up to our calling by cooperating with the Holy Spirit who wants to continue his sanctifying work, so that our character lives up to what we already are, "in Christ".

When we had our first child Sarah, I became a father for the first time. Her presence in my life forever changed my status. I was no longer just a husband I was now a father. But although my status was changed I still needed to become what I was now being called. I needed to take turns waking up in the night, to change nappies, tell bedtime stories, later take to nursery/school, doctors, help with homework, move her into college etc and all the other things expected as a father. I was - and am - a father becoming or learning to grow into being one.

Sadly there are lots of fathers who are fathers by name only. Some have the name but never grow into
what they are. Many of the Corinthians were just like that. There were Christians in terms of being saved and sanctified, but their lifestyle demonstrated that it was, in that sense, in name only. They were 'nominal' Christians just as absent or uninvolved as some of today's  nominal fathers.

So what Paul is challenging the Corinthians with is to live up to their calling. To become the Christians that they are through grace. And this is what the world expects of the Church of God with the human and the divine face. It wants to see more and more of God in us. And that should be our wish and calling.

Lastly, Paul reminds them they are Church of God, who they are/called to be and finally, reminds them who is their master. “...called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord, and ours.”

When you become a Christian you no longer belong yourself you belong to Jesus Christ. He is now your master and you are his servant. Later Paul will write (6:20): “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. “  

You and I should serve our master in any way we can, remembering the price he paid to ransom us from slavery and sin?  Our service therefore should be one of gratitude not obligation.

There is much more I can say on this but there is not enough time. For now then lets not get side-tracked into seeing Church other than what God has meant it to be, the people of God, sanctified and called to be saints to serve Jesus Christ, and led by someone who has been sent by God for that purpose. Let us fully co-operate with the Holy Spirit as he changes us "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Let me end with two quotes that will, I hope, give us food for thought on this matter. First Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones who was once asked what he thought of the Church. He said this:

“Jesus Christ was fantastic—but I do not like the Church. It does more harm than good.”

We should listen to those words and ask the question, what is it about the church that hides rather than shows people like Mick Jagger the Jesus he finds so winsome and attractive? Why are we hiding the One we should be showing to him and to the world we live in. What are we doing wrong?

And secondly a student when asked “what do you think of the church?’ replied
“Not much! It doesn't scratch where I itch.”

What is the itch he is referring to? The itch, I believe, is the desperate need of the world for love and forgiveness, hope and peace. Why aren't we scratching that itch?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Church growth

The following is from Pastor Perry Noble (see www.perrynoble.com) and although it is not Holy Writ it has enough about it to cause you to stop and think. At least it did me:

Things that STOP a Church growing

1. The Vision Is Not Clear
If people don’t know where a church is supposed to be going, then it will attempt to go everywhere and eventually wind up nowhere.  (Interesting experiment—ask people this coming Sunday at your church, “What is our vision” and see if people give you the same answers or different ones.)

2. The Focus Is on Trying to Please Everyone
There is NO church on the planet that will make everyone happy every single week—and according to the Scriptures, that isn’t really supposed to be our obsession.  Too many times, we become so concerned with offending people that we actually offend Jesus.

3. Passionless Leadership
When a leader does what he/she does for a paycheck and not because it's their passion … it’s over.  I’ve said it before … I want difference-makers, not paycheck-takers.  Also, it is hard to be passionate about a place when a person's average stay at a church is two years or less.

4. Manufacturing Energy
If a program is dead in a church … then it needs a funeral, and the people need to move on.  Investing time, energy and money into something that is dead will not revive it.  Celebrate the fact that “that” program had its day … and then move on.  AND quit trying to fire people up over events that you would not attend if you were not on staff.

5. Lack of Prayer
Many times, we work so hard putting our ideas together that we actually think there is no need for the supernatural power of God to be involved.  Prayer should not be the good luck charm that we stick at the beginning or the end of what we do … but rather it should be our constant desperation to see God do the undeniable among us.  Intense desperation often brings undeniable revelation!

6. Unwillingness to Take Risks
When our focus becomes to play it safe rather than to do whatever it takes to reach people far from God … it’s over.  NOWHERE in the Scriptures did God ever ask anyone to do anything that didn’t involve an “oh crap” moment.  We’ve GOT to be willing to embrace the uncertain if we want to see the unbelievable.

7. Disobedience to the Scriptures
Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:48, John 20:21, Acts 1:8, II Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 19:10 … I could go on and on … but we MUST understand that Jesus didn’t come to Earth, live here for 33 years, give HIS life for us, and then return back to heaven to intercede for us so that we could get in really little circles and talk about ourselves and condemn those who are not as good as us.  We are called to REACH PEOPLE FOR GOD—PERIOD!

8. Selfish Attitudes
Matthew 20:28 says it all … and if we are going to be more like Jesus, we’ve GOT to serve others rather than expecting the church to be our servant all of the time.  When a person (or group of people) refuses to embrace that a call to follow Jesus is a call to serve … then we’ve lost sight of who He is, and eventually, we will make being a Christian all about Jesus following/serving us rather than us taking up our cross and following Him!

Perry Noble

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Fasting again

My appetite is still diminished due to the fall out of my stomach problems after Christmas not caused, I hasten to add, by the usual feeding frenzy that seems to afflict a lot of folk over this period. I can't eat my favourite sweets - midget gems or wine gums - or chocolate any more unless I am prepared to pay the penalty of an aching and grumbling stomach for the next day or so. I have to eat much smaller quantities of food and at the moment I am trying to avoid bread or grilled cheese.

But this post isn't about me complaining or crying out "woe is me" but to point to a rather positive outcome of it all. And it is this. I seem to be thinking and praying with much greater clarity on an empty or half empty stomach than hitherto on a full one. Now I realise that there are other factors I could point to i.e. a Christmas rest, a less busy speaking schedule - for now at any rate - or a less cluttered life (at the time of writing), but I suspect that it is perhaps more to do with the fact of what I was once told about the way to get the best out of your brain in an exam. I was told - and it seems perfectly reasonable - that when we have a full stomach, more blood tends to be re-directed to the stomach to help with the digestion of the food and the integration of its nutrients into the bloodstream and body. When the stomach is not active in this respect, there is more oxygen and greater blood supply to the brain helping it to function better.

Certainly it seems from the Bible that fasting tends to heighten thinking, whether it be awareness of spiritual realities - see Jesus' 40 day fast in the desert in Matthew 4:1-11; or in alliance with prayer (Mark 9:29), to somehow boost its effectiveness not in some kind of magical way, but in improving discernment or our ability to listen to God's Holy Spirit.

In Matthew 17:19-20 Jesus touches on the subject of  fasting. In response to a question about why his disciples didn't fast, he answered:

“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast."

Jesus is referring to fasting here in the context of his presence with the disciples as opposed to his forthcoming absence. "Why fast when I am here?" he saying. "There is no need for it now, but there will be later." In other words he is looking ahead to the time when he will be absent in the body but present in the Spirit. Then the disciples will need to have sharpened minds and be on their toes spiritually if they are to continue their relationship with him in the future. The physical presence of Jesus then meant that there was less difficulty in hearing him speak and so no need to fast, whereas a different kind of hearing would be required when he was ascended to be with God but present through the Holy Spirit. Fasting would help facilitate that.

I appreciate I may be reading too much into the text and that Jesus may well have been speaking in this context about fasting representing mourning for sin rather than feasting for celebration. However I think fasting can also be understood as an ascetic exercise which, with prayer, and alms-giving (see Matthew 6) can enhance and mature our spiritual lives making us  more spiritually sensitive as we grow to become like Jesus.

Also Jesus refers to "that..day" perhaps referring to the 'day' of his crucifixion when fasting for mourning would be more appropriate, rather than subsequently when he promised to be present with us always be in the Spirit. The fasting - in the sense of mourning for his death =- will no longer apply. Fasting will therefore be for another reason - to heighten spiritual awareness, and discernment. This make more sense.

Whatever the passage from Matthew 17 may or may not mean, experience shows that fasting does seem to make a difference to prayer, spiritual reading and reflection on spiritual, as well as other things. Try it and see.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Acts 1:8

The following includes an excellent talk given Romanian Pastor Dr Paul Negrut. I came across him reading a book by John Stott and followed him up on the net. His sermon comes about 20 minutes into the broadcast so you may want to skip the worship at the start. He is talking on Acts 1:8 and its a very clear and powerful exposition of that verse. Enjoy and be inspired.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Nothing too small

Yesterday was my first day back after a rather difficult Christmas after first nursing a bad back, followed by a painful condition in the heel of my left foot which left me unable to put any weight on it - a kind of tennis elbow only in my foot - and then to cap it all for the last four-five days I have had a very uncomfortable and unpleasant bloated stomach which made it difficult to eat and digest anything put into it, solid or liquid. This was so reminiscent of the problems I had earlier last year - remember good old H.pylori helicobacter - that I thought I would have to return to the doctors for another dose of antibiotics etc.

But it struck me in bed lying awake at 3.45 on the Saturday night that among all the things I had not tried to cure it, was the one thing that lay closest to hand, prayer. Before Christmas I had enthusiastically commended a Prayer Chain and been touched by stories of the blessings of Prayer Shawls and prayed for others to be healed and yet I had not put any of this into practice in my own life. Why? Not sure. Perhaps because in comparison to some of the people I had been praying for a distended stomach and iffy digestive system seemed small fry when you are calling on God to heal cancer, or deliver someone from crippling depression? Or maybe it was because in some bizarre and subconscious way I felt that it was selfish of me to pray for myself when as a Vicar I should be praying for others? Or maybe it was much more straight forward than that and that I didn't really believe that God can and does heal?

That last part is worth lingering on and in some ways relates to my last blog about a one-tier universe? In my head I believe God is present in His creation, His Church and His people but not enough (!) to get too involved in anything other than the big stuff. Which creates a sort of hybrid of the one and two tier universe where God is not totally absent from this universe but not totally present either, or if He is at all it is conditional on the big issue or the big problem. In other words you can understand that He wants to cause revivals, save souls and calm storms, but colds, bad stomachs and financial problems? Come on.

But God is a God who points to a child and says "if you want to be in my kingdom become like this" (Mark 10:13-14). Who provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-34) and says that he is familiar with the smallest details of my haircut (Luke 12:7). Who even healed Peter's mother-in-law of a heavy cold/fever (Luke 5:38-39). Who told us that if we were anxious about anything - by which he means any-thing - we were to take it joyfully to him in prayer (Phil 4:6,7). So who was I to set our relationship on another footing and call all the shots?

The outcome of all this was that I turned onto my back, laid both hands on my stomach, and prayed that God would heal it and enable me to sleep. And he did. Slowly my stomach relaxed under the touch of my hands and after a few more minutes of prayer was settled and comfortable enough for me to turn over and fall fast asleep again. In the morning it was a lot better although still a little uncomfortable and so when went to receive Holy Communion in the 9.00 service I prayed again and asked that bread and wine - Christ's body and blood - would interact with mine and bring me further healing and wholeness. And over the course of the day that is exactly what happened. For the first time in days I was able to enjoy my Sunday dinner and enjoy a light tea without any unpleasant side effects. As I type this my stomach is still a little fragile but 100% better and, I believe, on the mend.

This then is my first lesson for of the New Year: Nothing is too small for the God who is involved in His creation and who longs to be included in our daily lives (He does after all invite us to pray for daily bread (Matthew 6:9-13) and to pray at all times (1 Thess 5:17).

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...