Thursday, 26 November 2015

My Master's face

Why do we have no recorded image of Jesus? Partly I suppose because paintings were rare in Palestine or partly because it was he, as God's Son, was so sacred that the disciples or the early Church didn't attempt anything. Or maybe because he is made in the image and likeness of every human being and to try and capture his likeness in the form that he came - a Jewish man - would have been to stop him identifying with everyone - "Jew nor Greek, ....slave nor free man.....male nor female." (Galatians 3:28). Or maybe as in the following poem "My Master's Face" it would only show us part of him or make us feel that because we 'see him' that we have got him in some way? Didn't Jesus say blessed are those who do not see yet believe (John 20:29)?

Anyway here is the poem:

No pictured likeness of my Lord
I have;
He carved no record
of His ministry
on wood or stone,
He left no sculptured tomb
nor parchment dim
but trusted for all memory of Him
the heart alone.
Who sees the face but sees in part;
Who reads the spirit which it hides,
sees all;
he needs no more.

Thy life in my life, Lord,
give Thou to me;
and then, in truth,
I may forever see
my Master’s face!
William Hurd Hillyer

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dallas Willard - Planning for Spiritual Formation

Dallas Willard - What matters to me and why?

Dallas Willard - Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation

Dallas Willard and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Taking Theology and Spiritual Disciplines into the Marketplace

Dallas Willard, "How is God with us? How can we know it?"

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 12 'Prayer'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 11 'Living without anger'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 10 'Kingdom Living'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 09 'Church Communities'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 08 'Transformation'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 07 'The Beatitudes'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 05 'Kingdom Salvation'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 05 'Salvation Confusion'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 04 'Kingdom Gospel;

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 03 'God and HIs Kingdom'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 02 'Human Nature'

Dallas Willard - The Divine Conspiracy 01 'Jesus and Culture'

The following lectures represent some of the most important teaching about Jesus and the Kingdom of God that you will hear. They are based on Dallas Willard's classic book of the same name.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

A timely reminder to every Christian

Lost and found

What is the Church?

With the same disclaimer as the previous video here is one about the Church:

A Simple Presentation of the Good News about Jesus

The following is a very succinct and clever presentation of the central message of Christianity - the Good News about Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). Of course you can pick holes in it and say that in some ways it is an over-simplification of a message that it takes at least one Gospel to convey. But it is a start and can, if you are interested, lead to something more. So if you want a summary of the Good News take a look:

Monday, 7 September 2015

The Book: Spoken Word

Had a very interesting meeting with Dai Woolridge from the Bible Society today about strengthening links with the fantastic work they do in making the Bible known to the world. He showed me this wonderful piece he had written and performed and which is available via YouTube etc. But for those who can't wait, here it is:

<iframe width="450" height="253" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/fIAWgRsZS9M" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

True prayer

"When we pray, all our care should be focused on filling our souls with such emotion that when the tongue speaks in prayer, and the ear hears that prayer, and the body prostrates itself, the heart will not be found empty - but will be moved towards God by its emotion.

When such feelings are present, our prayer is prayer. When they are absent, it is not yet prayer."
St. Theophan the recluse: The Path to Prayer


Although the above was written by an Eastern Orthodox priest in the nineteenth century (hence the reference to prostration) his words apply to every one who prays. Because what he is doing is exposing prayer that lacks heart and therefore lacks life. And everybody recognises that type of praying either in others or, God willing, in themselves.

The Gospel reading for last Sunday in the old calendar of the Church in Wales is from Luke 18:9-14. Here Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. In it the Pharisee, without emotion, reels off a list of the kind of things he has done for God. First he compares himself to others. He is not like them - "extortioners, unjust, adulterers or...tax-collectors". We all come off well when we compare ourselves with the worst. And second, he lists his religious practices which he sees as trophies of his (self)-righteousness: "I fast twice a week (and) give tithes of all that I get." His rather emotionless prayer which recounts his achievements means - as Jesus points out - that he is not really praying at all. In fact Jesus refers to it as praying ..."with himself". 

By contrast we feel the emotion of the tax-collector in the few words he utters as he beats his breast over and over while exclaiming "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" He is praying from the heart and God hears his prayer because it is true and honest. And so he is the one who "went down to his house justified."

Here then is an illustration of what St. Theophan is talking about. True prayer is prayer which touches the deepest part of us - our hearts - and as the Bible tells us, that is the seat of our emotions. So when we truly express who we really are before God, then is it hard not to be emotional in our prayers. Not necessarily with weeping or wailing or stuff like that, but with a real sense of connecting and owning the words we say rather than just saying them because we either think that they are what God wants to hear or what we think we should be saying.

So next time you pray, don't just say the words, but own them. Do they really express who and what you are? Or are they the words that you think God wants to hear. In other words pray as you and not as someone else.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Incarnational Christianity

Jesus, in order to save us, became one of us. That is the essential truth of the Incarnation and at the heart of the Gospel. Of course Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead and sent His Holy Spirit but all of this started when God took on flesh and walked among us. Everything else flows from this. This is why, I believe, John in His Gospel starts with this and underlines its powerful truth in those wonderful words of his in John 1:14

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."

If Jesus had not become one of us, identifying with us in every way - except without sin - then he would not have been able to save us. "For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved." (St. Gregory Nazianzus Epistle 101).

The image I get when reading the gospels is of a man (mankind) in a dark, dirty hole in the ground. He is too weak to climb up and out of the hole and so he cries out for help. Someone hears his call and climbs down into the hole, binds up his wounds and lifts him out into the sunshine. That is a picture of the incarnation. The rescuer coming alongside - rather than reaching down - to save the man and help him up.

Jesus' incarnation is, I believe, a model for us to follow when we think of rescue or evangelism. It is coming alongside people, identifying with them, joining them, and then helping them to God. But how many of our evangelistic models seem to keep a distance between us and those we are trying to reach. It is evangelism at arms length, the complete opposite to the Jesus model. It is only as we come alongside people, "walk a mile in their moccasins" - as the saying goes - that we can effectively reach them for Christ. The incarnation is our model and the Anglican Church which I belong to is pretty good at going some way along the road to working that out. All it needs to remember is that the Good News isn't just about good works and acts of kindness - although they are important - but sharing the message of God's love through Jesus. Put those two together and you have evangelism as Jesus intended.

The story which kind of sums this up is the story of the Good Samaritan in which the Samaritan in the Christ-like figure who does not pass by on the other side but crosses, binds up the wounds of the man left at the side of the road, and then carries him to the Inn.



Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Shape of Faith - the Sign of the Cross

As someone brought up on the evangelical - Low Church - wing of the Anglican Church the sign of the cross was a non-starter when it came to worship. Not understanding it and associating it with all that was wrong with ritualistic worship I pushed it out of my mind and got on with worshipping the way I was taught. Over the years however I have come to realise how terribly prejudiced, ignorant and narrow minded I have been and having read back into Church history I realise that my ancestors in the faith had no such foibles but saw the sign of the cross as a fundamental part of who they were. After all hadn't they taken up their crosses in order to follow Jesus? And so wasn't the sign of the cross a daily reminder of that? Here is an interesting article I came across, written by an evangelical who like me discovered that there is more to the sign of the cross than what he had previously thought:

The Shape of Faith. The sign of the cross is a reminder of whose we are. By Nathan Bierma

Pray continually, Paul urged the Thessalonians. The early church fathers took this one step further: continually make the sign of the cross.

 "In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross," wrote Tertullian at the turn of the third century, A.D. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom (apparently anticipating an American Express slogan) wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

How the sign of the cross — the motion of the hand over the torso, up, down, then side-to-side — made its way from the early church to us today is a lesson in church history, as you can see in two new books: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006). (The sign of the cross as a benediction, made outwardly rather than towards the self, also has a varied and murky history, but both books focus primarily mostly on making the cross over one's self.)

More importantly, the sign of the cross is a lesson in discipleship. As Andreopoulos, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and Ghezzi, from a Roman Catholic perspective, both show, making sign of the cross is a powerful act of daily prayer, dedication, and remembrance. Ghezzi writes that at its heart, the sign of the cross is "a simple gesture and … a simple prayer."

Over time, Christians have imbued this small, simple gesture with volumes of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity. Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth. The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.
Andreopoulos and Ghezzi find in the sign of the cross a symbol of baptism, protection, profession of faith, defiance of the Devil, invocation of God's power, solidarity with the church, and a rebuke of self-indulgence—to name a few.

The origins of the sign are unknown; as Andreopoulos points out: "our information is sparse because this ancient practice emerged naturally, as something that made sense to most Christians." The earliest descriptions, such as Tertullian's, indicate that the cross was made with one finger—probably the thumb—on the forehead in the shape of a Hebrew T or a Greek X, letters that stood for names of God and Christ. Presumably, early Christians were taking their cues from passages in Genesis 4:15, Ezekiel 9:4, and Revelation 14:1 and 22:4 that describe a mark on the forehead as a sign of God's claim on a person.

The similarities among the shapes of T, X, and the cross were noted by early writers, but it wasn't until the fourth century that the cross became a symbol of pride, of worship, and of Christian identity. By then, Augustine declared, "What else is the sign of Christ but the cross of Christ?" and advised that "the sign be applied … to the foreheads of believers."

At some point, Christians began to make the sign with two fingers rather than one, probably to indicate the two natures of Christ, and later, with three fingers to symbolize the Trinity. This change in fingering may have led to the "large cross"—the sign made over the entire upper body, rather than just the forehead. One explanation is that amid ninth-century debates over the nature of the Trinity, Christians may have wanted to emphasize that they were now using three fingers rather than two, and so they used the larger sign to make it more obvious.

If you think that's getting theologically meticulous, you haven't heard the debates over whether to finish the motion with a left-to-right movement (left cross) or right-to-left (right cross). The right cross, still practiced by Eastern Orthodox believers, symbolizes how "Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) He passed to the Gentiles (left)," according to Pope Innocent III. In Roman Catholic practice, the left cross has become standard, showing, (in one of many interpretations) that the believer hopes to be not on Christ's left—with the goats, as in Jesus' parable—at the day of judgment, but on Christ's right.

If these layers of theological density seem out of place with the simple beauty of the two-part motion of the sign of the cross, Andreopoulos explains that all symbols keep within them a multitude of meanings that they were given intentionally and also unconsciously. Upon reflecting on these signs, the faithful find that these meanings are made available. The sign, as an act, however small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life.

And so, both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi urge all Christians to rediscover—or discover for the first time—the ancient, simple, and profound act of making the sign of the cross.
"The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."
"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

Christians of a variety of traditions have begun to discover the beauty and meaning of this ancient act. Protestant objections to the sign of the cross are seldom articulated beyond the vague dismissal, "It's a Catholic thing," but Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, and the sign has long been part of Episcopal and Lutheran practice. As both Andreopoulos and Ghezzi show, the sign of the cross is hardly a uniquely Catholic practice; it has deep roots in the early and Eastern churches and clear ties to Scripture.

After reading these two books, this previously ignorant Protestant, for one, has decided to introduce the sign of the cross into his daily prayer, as a link with the early church, a sign of God's claim on me, and a reminder of the mystery of the Trinity.
oss is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show.

From centuries ago, Chrysostom admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and author of Bringing Heaven Down To Earth: Connecting This Life To The Next (P&R Publishing).

The God who surprises

I came across the following article on my computer. I have no idea who wrote it. It may have been me. But whoever wrote it, here it is:

In 1879, a child was born to a poor Jewish merchant. In early life the boy suffered a haunting sense of inferiority because of the anti-Semitic feeling he encountered. Shy and introspective, the boy was so slow in learning that his parents had him examined by specialists to see if he was normal. In 1895, he failed his entrance examination to the Polytechnic in Zurich, Switzerland, though a year later he tried again and succeeded. Later, he received a doctorate from the University of Zurich, yet obtained only an obscure job as a patent examiner in the Berne patent office. Who was he? The man who formulated the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived!

Often, those whom we underestimate and consider average end up doing surprising things. The same thing is true in the kingdom of Christ. The Lord frequently uses people who wouldn't appear to be an obvious first choice. We see that people rejected Jesus, and yet he became the Saviour of the world. In reference to Jesus, Luke 20:17 says, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’ 

Martin Luther King, Jr wrote: ‘You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.’

Think about how many leaders in the Bible would have been disqualified from leading if they had been judged through the eyes of people. Moses murdered a man (Exodus 2:12) and he complained to God that he wasn't a public speaker (Exodus 4:10), yet the Lord used him to deliver 600,000 men, plus an untold number of women and children, from Egypt. David was a teenager when he was chosen as king, and he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered (2 Samuel 11:15), yet he was considered a man after God’s own heart. When he was just a teenager, Jeremiah was called by God to preach to the kings of many nations (Jeremiah 1:5), and the apostle Paul persecuted the church (Philippians 3:6) and admitted that he was not a public speaker (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), yet he ended up a zealous witness for Jesus Christ and wrote two thirds of the New Testament.

God is a God of surprises and we shouldn't be surprised that there are endless possibilities for our lives! He knows each one of us, and he also knows about what we may consider to be our limitations, but he can use us despite them if we respond in trust to His call.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Good News about evil

Good news about evil—Mark 1:21-28 Sermon preached on 1st February 2015 at St. James, Swansea

Introduction
This morning we continue our short series of sermons on the Good News of Jesus by looking at passage from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus encounters a man with an “impure or demonic spirit”.

Its an ordinary Sabbath day and Jesus had gone to his local Synagogue to one of the services.

It was a five part service which included prayers, singing psalms, blessings and readings from the Old Testament and teaching. But as there was no official clergy any Jew who wanted to offer some comment or teaching on the passage could stand up and say something. That’s what Jesus does here.

As soon as he does so one of the members of the congregation, possessed—says Mark  - by an evil spirit—manifests that spirit and starts shouting in fear that Jesus the “Holy One of God” has come to destroy him.

With a word of command: “be quiet or be muzzled” and “come out of him” the spirit is cast out and leaves. The crowd are amazed. They had heard teaching before but this has a power and authority they had never seen. Word spreads about Jesus.

What’s the message here then for us? What’s the Good News in this passage? There are lots of things we could say but I want to focus on one. Problem of evil.

Evil comes in many forms. I think one of the worst forms of evil is an evil that masquerades itself as good or in the name of religion. We don’t have to look far to see what being done in the name of Allah today, something that horrifies the vast majority of peaceful and devout Muslims.

Christianity is not exempt either. Take for example the Bosnian war in the early nineties. Some Serbian Orthodox priests were seen blessing soldiers before they tortured and killed their victims. And paedophile priests and ministers use their positions of trust and privilege to prey on vulnerable
children. Today Israel occupies a country they say was given them by God and yet how does that measure up to what it is doing to their neighbours the Palestinians? So it’s not altogether shocking to find evil lurking in a member of the Synagogue—the place of worship—on the day Jesus went to preach. And Jesus expresses no surprise either when he encounters it.

W.Graham Scroggie a great Scottish preacher who died in the 1950’s was not surprised either. He says this in his commentary on the passage:

"Jesus went to church on Sunday. Do you go? Demons do sometimes. See to it that you are never their conveyance. We speak of the “man in the street”, but what about the devil in the pew! Where there is Divine instruction there will be devilish obstruction: truth never goes unchallenged.”
Scroggie on Mark


But the Good News is that Jesus came to deliver us from evil. And what he did for this one man, he came to do for the world. Through his death and resurrection evil will ultimately be defeated.

There are three places where evil needs to be addressed:

First, there is evil in us.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident writer in the 20th century who wrote about the evils of communism. He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 but not before he spent 8 years
imprisonment because of his writings.  In one of his famous books “The Gulag of Archipelago he says this about evil:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  

We can’t point the finger at everyone else without pointing three fingers at ourselves, he is saying. In the words God spoke to Cain (Genesis 3), sins crouches at our door and the potential for evil—as well as good—lies in each one of us.

Paul knew that better than anyone. He speaks about it in Romans 7 when peering into his own heart he cries out about the battle within himself. That sometimes the good he wants to do he doesn't do and the evil he doesn't want to do he ends up doing! “What a wretched man I am! He shouts.  
“Who will rescue me?” Who will rescue us?

Have you ever made that prayer? I have. Frank Sinatra is a fortunate man to be able to sing “regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”  I have loads. Especially since coming here to St. James. Things I have done and said without thinking that just pop up and betray that deep fault line within my own heart. "Who will rescue me?" cries Paul in anguish. “Thanks be to God—through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The same Jesus who rescued that poor man in the synagogue. Who knows how many years he had suffered? But as soon as Jesus comes along he has the power to rescue him and set him free. And he has the power to rescue me—and you. Call out to him and he will forgive and rescue you. He won't make you perfect overnight but he will begin the process of making you more and more like him. That is what his name means: Jesus—God is salvation or God saves. He gives us the means and the power to change.

Second, evil in society.
Its there all around us, you don’t have to look far. Poverty, homelessness, injustice, prejudice, greed, dishonesty, selfishness, its all there. And Jesus calls us to fight it. That is why through the centuries the Church has built hospitals, fought to abolish slavery, set up schools and universities, charities and rescue missions. That is why there are street pastors on the streets of Swansea—two from St. James Sylvia and Sian. That is why there are Food Banks and Credit Unions.

Jesus says to the disciples (and us): “You are the light of the world.” The Message puts it like this:

“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.“

We are not only light we are, says Paul, the body of Christ! Teresa of Avila put it like this:

“Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good…” 

What are we at St. James doing to address the evils in society? How are we being the light that pushes back the evil? Of all people on earth we are meant to be associated with the compassion, kindness and love of Christ. We are meant to shine out that goodness so that people may see Jesus among us.

Jesus died on the cross to save us, so that we, in turn may work with him to save others

Finally, there is evil in the heavenly places.
“Our struggle” writes Paul to the Ephesians, “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Eph 6:12

We see an aspect of this spiritual force of evil in the impure spirit that possessed the man in the synagogue. Jesus himself had no doubt about its reality. You don’t speak to a mental illness and command it to be quiet and leave. So we take our lead from Christ. As a result from the earliest days the church when it baptised people, included some form of exorcism or deliverance from evil in its order of service. Its still there, in some form, in our baptism services.

“Do you renounce evil? I renounce evil. Almighty Father, you sent your Son into the world to destroy the powers of darkness. Hear our prayer for these children: deliver them from evil, give them light & joy and fill them with your Holy Spirit….”

Each person is signed with the cross and called upon to “Fight valiantly against sin, the world AND the devil…”

But here’s is the point. The power of Christ is greater than the power of the devil and all evil. On the cross he defeated it all. So Paul writes to the Colossians:

“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

The war is already won but there are still battles to be fought. In the Second World War when the Allies landed in Europe they knew they had won the war but there will still battles to be fought as the Germans fought a determined rearguard action against the advancing armies. With Christ then we have nothing to fear. But there is still work to do and we must constantly be on the watch out for spiritual attack that can come at any time.

I don’t have time to look at the many forms this form of spiritual battle can take but let me highlight one. Division. One of the devils tactics is to divide and conquer. If we read the New Testament letters we see this come up again and again. Jesus describes the devil as a wolf who scatters the sheep picking them off one by one. Or like a lion stalking his prey. We need to be constantly on our guard resisting him firm in the faith that Christ has already defeated him on the cross and working to stay united as a church over any issue that threatens to divide us as a congregation.

So here is the good news. Jesus is greater than all evil.
If we trust in him he will deliver us from it and save us.
If we work with him we will push back the darkness of evil in our world bringing light.
If we stand guard with him we will be able to resist every attack aimed at undermining the work he wants to do.

John Wesley and the call to faith

John Wesley was almost in despair. He did not have the faith to continue to preach. When death stared him in the face, he was fearful and ...