Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Faith and knowledge

Luke 7:1-10

The climax of our account of the healing the centurion’s servant comes in verse 9 where Jesus says of the centurion: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus receives a request to heal the faithful servant of a Roman officer but before he gets there is told by some friends sent by him that one word or command is enough and he knows his servant will be healed. Such faith startles Jesus. It was greater than anything he had found among God’s own people.

 But what is faith? Among other things, it is the capacity to believe and to trust in something or someone. But how can you believe or trust in something or someone without information. Listen to what Richard Bewes former Rector of All Souls Langham Place, London says about faith:

"What is faith? It is not some elusive commodity, available only to the lucky few. It is simply a response to a given set of factors. E.g. I look at a railway timetable and get on the train. I am offered a chair and I sit down. Faith has been exercised.”

 In other words, for someone to have faith, they must first have information upon which to base that faith. A "given set of factors". In the account of the healing the centurion knows something about Jesus that enables him to feel he can put his trust in him to heal his servant. Look at the text:

1. First as Jesus makes his way some friends, speaking in behalf of the say:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you”. (v6)

The centurion was an officer serving with the occupying forces in Israel and therefore not subject to anyone except his commanding officer and the emperor. And yet here he speaks with great deference to Jesus calling him his “Lord” and expressing his unworthiness to have Jesus even step foot in his house. He obviously sees in Jesus someone who is his superior in every way.

2. Second he says: “But say the word” or in the KJV “say in a word” and let my servant be healed.”
Again this is a remarkable statement where he acknowledges Jesus’ power and ability to heal by just saying a word. One word from Jesus is sufficient for his servant who is sick and at the point of death (verse 2) to be restored to full health.

3. Finally, he says to Jesus: “For I also (NKJV) am a man under authority…”
Just as he has the authority invested in him by none other than the Roman Empire to give orders to those under him, so he sees in Jesus a far greater authority—the authority of the Kingdom of Heaven—to heal sickness and deliver from death. In other words the Centurion’s faith comes from the fact that he somehow knows who Jesus is—that he is Lord, he has the power to heal at a word, and has the authority of heaven. He has been given this information—this given set of factors—and on what he knows/has been revealed to him, he has made the decision to trust Jesus.

You see God does not expect us to conjure up faith for ourselves from the air. If we seek truly Him, then He will provide us the information that we need – what the Bible calls revelation—in order for us to exercise faith and trust.

Listen to what Paul writes to the Church in Corinth. We need to listen carefully to what he says:

7 The wisdom I proclaim is God's secret wisdom, which is hidden from human beings…..8 None of the rulers of this world knew this wisdom. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory …...10 But it was to us that God made known his secret by means of his Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, even the hidden depths of God's purposes. 11 It is only our own spirit within us that knows all about us; in the same way, only God's Spirit knows all about God.  12 We have not received this world's spirit; instead, we have received the Spirit sent by God, so that we may know all that God has given us.” 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 & 10-12

Basically what Paul is saying is this. Unless God reveals Himself to us through His Spirit, then we will not have access to the information we need—here he calls it wisdom—upon which to exercise faith. This is what we see here in Luke. God in some way revealed to the centurion who Jesus was. And it was on the basis of this information/revelation that the centurion was able to trust in Jesus as Lord, in his word as power and in his authority as absolute. God saw in the Centurion someone who was truly seeking him and so he revealed himself to him and he responded in faith.

If we truly seek God, he will do the same for us. It is up to us then, to respond in faith and find healing and deliverance from death. It is then by faith, we will be saved.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The Bible and the Desert Fathers

The Bible will always be my primary source of inspiration, guidance and instruction, and the place where I most encounter God. However other writings have recently been challenging me called the writings of the desert fathers and mothers. If we think we live in an age of challenge and compromise, they were there first. For the first three centuries the early Church was persecuted relentlessly with early writings reporting the gruesome torture and death - often for public entertainment - of martyr after martyr. Amazingly the "blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church" to quote Tertullian, an early Christian apologist (AD 155-240) and nothing that the successive rulers and emperors could do could stop the march of Christianity until early in the fourth century the emperor Constantine was converted and gave the Church the freedom to worship without fear.

But with that new found freedom came what some people see as the inevitable compromise. As Christianity became the 'in thing' and popular among the people it started to become more and more watered down. The disciplines of the Christian life which has sustained the faith of the Church and strengthened people to face the prospect of ridicule, arrest, torture and death, were no longer practised with the same commitment and vigour, and those who had dedicated their lives to Christ's cause and took His commands seriously, started to search for ways of keeping the fire of their faith burning bright. They became hermits or monks, many seeking out men and women known for their sanctity of life and joining communities of followers who listened and put into practice their teaching. These saints became known as the Desert Fathers - and Mothers - and we have a collection of their sayings and stories which have been collected together and are available today. They make challenging reading and continue to be the source of instruction and inspiration for Christians today who seek to lead an authentic Christian life.

One of the best collections can be found in a book of sayings and stories collated and translated by Benedict Ward SLG. Here are a few that I have selected. What stands out is how thoroughly Biblical, short and memorable they are. The following are from the life of the greatest desert father Anthony of Egypt who lived from Ad 251-356:

Someone asked Abba Anthony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, "This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.

He also said, "Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." He even added, "Without temptations no-one can be saved."

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, "What ought I to do?" and the old man said to him, "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Abba Anthony said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can get through from such snares?" Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.'" 

Another personal favourite is Mark the Monk:

“Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.”

“Understand the words of Holy Scripture by putting them into practice, and do not fill yourself with conceit by elaborating on theoretical ideas.”

“A humble man who lives a spiritual life, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will relate all things to himself and not to others.”

Arsenius - born in Rome about AD 360 - was a well-educated man of senatorial rank, who was appointed by the Emperor Theodosius as tutor to the princes Arcadius and Honorius. He left the palace in 394 and became an anchorite (a religious recluse). He died in AD 449.

"I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent."

One of the emperor's officers brought him the will of a senator, his relation, who was lately dead, and had left him his heir. The saint took the will and would have torn it to pieces, but the officer begged him not to, saying such an accident would get him in trouble. Arsenius, however, refused the estate, saying "I died eleven years ago and cannot be his heir".
Finally from a Desert Mother Amma Syncletica (Fifth-century)

“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of one’s own thoughts.”

“Just as it is impossible to be at the same moment both a plant and a seed, so it is impossible for us to be surrounded by worldly honor and at the same time to bear heavenly fruit.”

“All must endure great travail and conflict when they are first converted to the Lord, but later they have unspeakable joy. They are like people trying to light a fire, the smoke gets in their eyes, their eyes begin to water, but they succeed in what they want. It is written ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Heb. 12:29), and so we must kindle divine fire with tears and trouble.”

There are many many more that continue to inspire and challenge me. How we need such people and examples today.

Faith and obedience

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. 

7 “Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”  Luke 17:5-10

At first glance those two passages don't seem to fit together. In the first part Jesus is answering a question about how to increase faith. The reason the disciples had asked the question is because they didn’t think that their faith could meet the demands of Jesus’ command to forgive. And so they asked Jesus to show how they could have a faith strong enough/big enough to forgive as he commanded them to do.

It is a reminder to us that in order to truly live the Christian life we need Christ. We need his help, his wisdom and his grace. Without Him we will fail and become disillusioned. How can we love our enemies without Jesus’ help? How can we forgive those who hurt us without His grace? The disciples are showing us how to be disciples, by leaning on Jesus.

Jesus' response is to say that all they need is a little faith and they would be able to achieve all kinds of seemingly impossible things. Speaking to a mulberry tree and commanding it to be uprooted and planted in the sea is here a metaphor for the impossible.

But then Jesus seems to change tack. He talks about the unquestioning obedience of a servant who always puts the needs of the master before their own. When a servant comes in from a hard day’s work the master doesn't say “sit down and have something to eat”. Instead he asks them to prepare him supper. Only after they have finished serving are they then able to sit down and see to themselves.

Two questions then. First, what is the point Jesus is making here in verses 7-10. And second, what, if anything, has this to do with faith?

First, Jesus is talking about what it means to be one of his followers. To be a follower of Jesus and to call him Lord and mean it, is to be his servant. And that flies in the face of what many think being a Christian is about today. Many—all too many—think its just about believing in God/Jesus and going to Church on a Sunday—usually the occasional Sunday if there is nothing else pressing to do—or keeping the commandments etc. Not many—if any—would describe themselves as servants of Jesus Christ. And yet this is exactly how the first Christians understood themselves. Take Paul, the great Apostle. He introduces himself in several letters in exactly this way. To the Romans he writes:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1)

Or in his letter to the Philippians:

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi…” (Phil 1:1)

Peter and James and Jude do the same. How could they see themselves any differently when Jesus refers to himself as one:

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

So a follower of Jesus is one who serves the servant-king.

Second, what then has this got to do with faith? We have just touched on it. Faith is about being faithful. To exercise faith isn't merely just to believe it is to put into practice the commands of the one you have believed in or on.

So what Jesus is saying is that for their faith - and ours -  to be the real and genuine article, and if that faith is to be increased or sufficient to meet his commands, it must be exercised and expressed through our obedient response to His commands. Just as a servant would obey his/her master.

Faith is so misunderstood isn't it. We often see it as merely believing something. And so people believe that their faith will increase if they read their Bible more or study it often, or listen to as many sermons as possible. Like myself, they read books and commentaries on the Bible or study the famous lives of Christians trough the centuries or tune into Premier Radio or subscribe to podcasts from by well-known Bible expositors and preachers. None of this, is of course bad, but it does not increase faith only knowledge. And knowledge on it's own "puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Only love - expressed in obedience to the lover, Jesus, "builds up".

So Bible study etc is only as good as your willingness to put it into practice. It is to be read to ensure that you know AND obey God’s commands. Faith is a ‘doing’ word.

There is a story told of one of one of the early Christians who fled to the desert to pursue a more authentic Christian life - knows as the desert fathers and mothers - called Abba Pambo (AD 303-375) He was like many of them, illiterate, so he asked another desert dweller to teach him a psalm. When he heard the first words of Psalm 39: “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue,” he asked the other monk to stop reading. He then meditated on that verse alone—for 19 years! Asked whether he was ready to hear at least the remainder of the verse, he replied that he had not mastered the first part yet!

In other words because he had not managed to put into practice what the psalm demanded and guarded his ways or mastered his speaking so that it honoured God, he saw no reason to continue learning the rest of the psalm. Wow!

That may seem a little extreme to us but the point being made here is that Scripture—the Word or words/commands of God are not just there to be believed but to be acted upon. To be carried out. In fact there is a danger in reading too much of the Bible if all we are going to do is accumulate knowledge/show off how much we can quote it. It is an instruction book and a means to the end of loving and serving God and not an end to itself.

In that long roll call of people of faith in Hebrews 11 this connection between faith and obedience comes over and over again:

Noah: "By faith Noah….prepared an Ark for the saving of his household.” (Heb 11:7)

Noah built the ark in response to God’s command.

Abraham: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance" (Heb 11:8)

Preachers make much of his faith but that faith was incomplete until he put his foot through the door and started his journey.

Moses: "By faith he forsook Egypt….and passed through the Red Sea.”(Hebrews 11:27)

There is an old Jewish legend that tells that the Red Sea did not actually part until Moses first stepped into it in obedience to God's command.

Joshua: "By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were circled for seven days.” (Heb 11:31)

The walls only fell down once Joshua/the people of Israel had obeyed the Lord’s command to march round it for seven days.

Faith only ‘works’ and grows if “by faith” we obey the Lord’s commands and do what he says. That is that we are faithful.

Faith and obedience are husband and wife. And those whom God has joined together no one should separate. But in our time there has been a divorce. This is partly down to a misunderstanding of what faith looks like. This was something James addresses in his letter. He writes in  2:14-17:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."

Jesus said “If you love me you will keep my commands.” (John 14:15). By saying that he wasn’t inviting us to merely believe in his commands but to put them into practice. Only by doing what he says will we truly grow as his disciples and be a blessing to ourselves and to others.

Maybe that is why there is such a crisis of faith in the lives of Christians today. As the Danish Philosopher Sore Kierkegaard once noted:

“It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”

Is that why people are falling away from faith because they never really understood that being a follower of Jesus is about doing what he says? Is that the reason there are so many christian 'consumers' but all too few Christian 'doers'? how many Christians fall away when the storms of life batter them or some crisis seems to all too easily overwhelm them?

Is that why the Church is in decline because people are merely believing but not practising their faith so that it shrivels and dies and falls at the first challenge.

To use Jesus’ metaphor, how many Christian lives are built on sand and how many on rock (see Matthew 7:24-29)?

We talk about the reward of faith. What about the reward of obedience that comes from faith? Let me close with these words from Paul as he comes to the end of his letter to the Romans:

"Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. Romans 16:25

The obedience of faith. True faith - as opposed to mere belief, no matter how sound or orthodox that belief is - is bound up with obedience. Without obedience - by which James means 'works' i.e. that which is 'worked out' then faith is dead.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Same sex Marriage

I have long been pondering the subject of same sex marriage and the continuing opposition of Christians in the face of accusations of homophobia and sometimes outright persecution.  I have concluded that as much as people want to call the union of two people of the same sex, marriage, calling it such does not make it so. If I call my dog a cat, no matter how many times I call her a cat, and even change the law in order to compel her to be addressed as, and treated as, a cat, it does not nor can it ever make her a cat. She is a dog. So with same sex marriage. You can call it marriage, compel everyone to address it, and treat it as such, but that will not make it a marriage. It never will be, because in the eyes of God - and Jesus - marriage is between two members of the opposite sex (Genesis 1:24, Matthew 19:5). And the Law of God the Creator, is the only law that really counts.

So the Christian faith may well lose the battle to prevent same sex marriage being acknowledged as such in the face of the capitulation of church after church, but in the eyes of God, marriage, in the truest sense of the word, will always be between a man and a woman. Just as a dog will always  be a dog and a cat a cat.

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 ...