Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Means of Grace

Readings

1 Cor. 11:23-29
2 Tim. 3:15-17
Eph 6:18, Phil 4:6, Col 4:2, Ro 8:26-27

Introduction

This week brings the second of our themed preaching series which is working through the circuit's 'Growing in prayer' initiative.  You should have received this week's leaflet by email along with the notices but, if you didn't, I have a few copies with me.

The leaflet points out that the logo for this initiative is a tree and asks the questions, if we are going to grow, where should we put down our roots? What feeds us spiritually?

John Wesley believed we should all be regularly involved with ‘The Means of Grace’ namely Prayer, reading the Bible and Communion. These things, he said, did not make us Christians but were routes by which God enabled us to best connect with him and grow. After all, this is what the early church did.  We read in Acts 2:42 that, right at the inception of the church, the believers 'devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.'

Today we will be thinking about three of the points in that verse that Wesley drew attention to:  Communion, Scripture and Prayer.  God calls us to live in relationship with him, and these three things are foundational to a healthy, thriving relationship with our God.

Communion

Corinth was ideally placed to become the major centre of commerce and communications that it was.  It had sea routes east and west, and land routes north and south.  Unfortunately, it was also a morally corrupt city, with all manner of licentiousness and hedonism being practised.  None of that stopped the church taking root.

You can probably imagine people coming out of that culture into the kingdom of God bringing all kinds of problems and behaviours with them.  That's the reason why we have Paul's letters to the Corinthian church today; much of what Paul wrote was to address the issues the church was wrestling with.

One of the problems was in the way they conducted themselves at celebrations of The Lord's Supper.  For them, what we know as Communion was embedded in a much wider fellowship meal. Now, there's nothing wrong with that.  The problem was that some of the gathered believers were over-indulging and getting drunk, leaving others hungry and thirsty.  In his letter, Paul tells them off about their behaviour and, in the passage we've just heard read, he tells them how to do communion properly.

I believe our village to be a very different place from Corinth.  We don't have the kind of problem with communion that they had. Our problem, if we have one, is not one of negligent disregard. Our problem, if we have one, is more likely to be familiarity with an habitual ritual, which we can do without much thought.  So what can we learn from what Paul said that helps us gain the most from our communion services?

Now, I have to say that I am not much of a sacramentalist.  I don't believe that anything is imparted to me merely as a result of eating the bread or drinking the wine – except perhaps a few calories(!)  I guess there may be some here who take a different view from mine: you're quite at liberty to do so!  I'm just expressing my understanding.

Having said that, how does communion become a 'means of grace' for me?  For me, communion is
  • a reminder of the cost of my salvation
  • and of the amazing love of God;
  • it's a call to personal appraisal,
  • and an encouragement for what lies ahead.
As part of his passover meal, Jesus presented the bread of affliction to the disciples and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.'  When I receive the bread I am reminded of Peter's words in his second letter that “'[Christ] himself bore our sins' in his body on the cross . . .” and that Christ did that for me!

Jesus then presented the cup of salvation and said, 'This is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.'  Peter also reminds us that we were 'redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ.'

Christ took all my sin on himself and paid the full penalty of my sin with his own blood, all to make it possible that I could have a relationship with God.  That's how much it cost him, and that's how much he loves me.  Why on earth does God want a relationship with me?  I've no idea; but I'm thankful that he does.

Paul tells us we ought to examine ourselves before partaking of communion – partly to ensure we are approaching the table with the right head on but also to sort out with God anything that's got in the way of our relationship with him.  Back in my early days as a Christian, I noticed there were often people who abstained from communion.  It was explained to me that they were feeling unworthy to participate because of some sin in their lives.  I think that's sad.  If we examine ourselves, confess and repent, then there's no need to abstain.  All the more reason to participate, in thankfulness for Christ's sacrifice and love.  The wording of verse 28 in the AV is clearer on this point:  'let a man examine himself, and so let him eat … and drink ...'!

Communion points us to the cross, the place where our relationship with God is made possible, and where it begins, and how it continues.

It also helps us to keep us on course because it points us towards our destiny.  Paul writes: 'When you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.'

We think not only of Christ's death but also of his resurrection and of his promised return, and, by implication, our being with him for ever.  Hallelujah!

I think we should be mindful of all these things when we approach the Lord's table.  Yes, we should come with reverence, but also with thankfulness and with joy.

Scripture

The Bible is a collection of writings, contributed by a variety of authors from a range of temporal and cultural contexts.  It tells the story of God's relationship with humankind from the beginning of humanity to New Testament times.  It's an invaluable guide for ensuring the wholesome continuation of that relationship.

We've just heard 2 Timothy 3:15-17 which, from a Christian perspective, is what the Bible has to say about itself.

Paul was writing to Timothy who was in charge of the very large church in the city of Ephesus, interestingly enough another centre of commerce with dubious moral standards.  In his previous letter to Timothy, Paul encouraged him to be devoted to the public reading of scripture.  Why?  Because he thought it important for the church to know what the Hebrew scriptures have to say (they didn't have the New Testament at that time).  In what we've just heard read, he gives us some idea as to why he thinks it important.

The Scriptures that make up the Bible are God-breathed.  The authors received inspiration from God, not dictation, and they wrote from the perspective of their own nature, character and temporal and cultural landscape.

Nonetheless, the origin of Scripture lies with God himself, the Holy Spirit guiding the authors and the compilers of canon.

Paul describes the usefulness of Scripture
  • for teaching (so we can know what God is like),
  • for rebuking (so we know when we get things wrong),
  • for correcting (to help us find restoration),
  • and for training (so we can get it right in future).
Scripture, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, guides us to the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus and thoroughly equips us for every good work.

It seems clear that nothing else is needed to guide us in matters of faith and conduct.  That was certainly John Wesley's position.  That said, God can speak to us through anything but we do well to test what we hear in Scripture's light.

If the Bible records the relationship between God and mankind then it becomes our invaluable guide to life with God.  In essence, the Christian life is experiential. Scripture leads me to expect an experience of God but also guides me in evaluating my experience; to ignore it can lead to all manner of spurious extremes.

Since, in our land, we have the freedom and opportunity to read the Bible I think it's important that we do.  It's food for our spirits.  It illuminates our journey with God; as the psalmist says, 'Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.'

Our leaflet from the circuit encourages us to read the Bible.  There's a challenge to read Mark's gospel in the coming week.  There are only 16 chapters.  If you're an avid reader you could easily read the whole lot in one sitting.

Lent is usually seen as a time for giving up things like chocolate (why would you do that?).  How about this year using Lent as a time for taking on something new, like daily Bible reading!  The psychologists tell us it takes about 40 days to change a behaviour or to establish a new habit.  Guess what! Lent is about 40 days long!  What an opportunity!

Prayer

If you were here last week you may remember someone saying that he didn't understand how prayer works. Well, it's my job this morning to bring some enlightenment to you. 

The first thing to say is that I don't understand how it works either.  In, fact, I doubt there is anyone, or ever has been anyone, who truly understands how it works.  All I know is that we are encouraged to do it! 

In a way, I want to change the emphasis: don't do prayer; live prayerfully.  That seems to be the message that Paul was trying to get across.  He thought reading the scriptures was important for believers, and he was convinced that prayer was equally important.  The verses we've just read encourage us
  • to devote ourselves to prayer,
  • to prayer in every situation,
  • to watch out for things that need prayer,
  • to pray about all kinds of things,
  • and to always keep on praying.
If you think that means you need to spend the whole time on your knees, think again.  We're told to pray in the Spirit on all occasions: so whatever we're doing, we can maintain an on-going dialogue with God; while we're working, relaxing, eating, playing or whatever. 

Prayer is a very important part of our relationship with God.  All relationships rely on communication, and prayer is part of that two-way conversation.

Prayer is not about trying to get God to do things for us.  It's much more about talking things over with him, bringing our concerns to him and asking what he thinks.  It means giving ourselves time and space to listen to him.  We tend to go to God with a list of things for him to do, but he wants us to enjoy spending time with him.

There's no one prescribed way of doing prayer.  Just like our communication with other people, sometimes we chat, sometimes “we need to talk.”  Sometimes we need to write things down to get our thoughts across clearly, or even draw a diagram.  We're all different and find some ways of communicating more helpful than others.

We've all met people who are good with words and write very carefully worded prayers, and we rightly admire that ability.  We may even find them discouraging and say, “I could never write prayers like that.”  Here's some encouraging news: there are no qualifications or special abilities needed before you are allowed to pray. 

If you find yourself in difficulties, you don't have to say, “Almighty God, our loving heavenly father, I find myself in straightened circumstances and beseech you that you may send your gracious aid in this my hour of need.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.” You can say It as it is!  “Lord, I'm in a mess.  Help!”

In fact, you don't need words and don't even need to know how to pray! Paul said, 'We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with wordless groans.' This is very encouraging to know when we're confronted with some of the things that come through our television news.  We can just go to God with the burden of what we feel: the Spirit knows how to use that.

In the verses we heard, there was another idea coupled with prayer: thankfulness.  Be thankful in prayer.  After all, God has made it possible for us to live in relationship with him and opened up this means of communication for us: he's listening!  Being thankful also implies a sense of expectation that he will respond positively.   And possibly, if we're focussed on giving thanks for what we have, we'll be less inclined to present him with a list of things we don't have.  Just a thought . . .

So, how does prayer work?  I don't know.  Is it helpful?  Yes it is.  Is it just for people of a certain disposition?  No, prayer is for everyone.  And now, we're all going to pray!

Baseline Discipleship

Reading 

Micah 6:1-8

Introduction

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, and his message was much the same – hardly surprising if they are both speaking on behalf of the same God to the same people. 

He foresees God's judgement of both Samaria and Jerusalem, representing the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Their crimes?  Idolatry and injustice, false and meaningless religion, the strong oppressing the weak for personal gain. 

He foretells the time when Messiah will arise from Bethlehem and that he will rule over all.

In our passage, God lays his case before the people: he has done them only good.  Micah is devastated and asks what people can do to save themselves from God's judgement, and then sets down God's simple requirements of his people.

What I'm about to explore here is, in my opinion, the most important concept for anyone who claims to be a Christian: Baseline Discipleship.  The title implies very basic teaching, a setting forth of the bare-minimum that we need to do to be disciples of Christ, and so it is.  However the title doesn't really do the subject justice.  I could just as easily have called it ‘The Sum-total of Discipleship’ without making any extravagant claims.

Micah has implied that the practice of religion is not enough to placate God's anger or to earn his favour, neither the Hebrew sacrificial system practised in his day nor the despicable child-sacrifice adopted from the surrounding nations.  Nor is the mere practice of religion in our modern age, what we do on a Sunday morning, enough to satisfy God.

In verse eight of our passage, God gives us three simple requirements for life, requirements which have never been superseded or set aside, and which are rooted very firmly in the nature of God himself.  They are requirements which impact on each and every one of us personally and daily.  God expects us

  • to act justly
  • to love mercy, and
  • to walk humbly with him.

That's all there is to it!  Three requirements that are extremely simple to grasp, and at the same time deeply challenging to live.  Let's look at them in more detail.

First of all, we are told to

Act Justly

If you read through Micah, you'll see various examples of injustice being practised in his day.  We see a people of very questionable personal integrity: the strong depriving the weak, people seeking personal gain regardless of how it affected others, vengeful behaviour if they didn't get what they wanted.  When we look at western society today, it seems to be going more and more in the same direction.

Justice is about giving people what they deserve.  This is not just a matter of doling out punishment for offences.  It is also a matter of treating others fairly and seeing that they get what they need.  It can mean going to the defence of the oppressed and disenfranchised, even if it costs us. 

We can think of the refugees so prevalent in our news today, or those whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster; we think of Haiti, or—even more recently—central Italy.  What should governments do?  What should our personal actions be towards them? 

But it's not just about the big issues tackled by large, impersonal organisations.  Acting justly is about my personal integrity in the way I conduct my affairs.  As a trivial example, we may be very quick to point out an error if we are short-changed in a shop but what's our response if they give us too much change?  Only on Friday night, my wife and I were out for a meal.  We asked for the bill and they brought us the wrong one.  It was for less than our bill, and some would have paid it and left.  We pointed out the error and paid our own bill.  Acting justly is about my everyday interactions with the people around me, as well as my personal response to the wider injustices I am aware of. 

One dismally wet Saturday afternoon, a Christian couple were sitting quietly in their lounge when there was a knock at the door.  They opened the door to find three Swedish girls asking for help.  They were on a cycling holiday, and one of them had fallen off her bike and injured herself. 

What should the couple do?  What would you have done? 

The couple took the girls' bikes in for safe-keeping, and drove them to A&E, leaving their phone number with them so they could be collected after being tended to, and reunited with their bikes.  All ended well and the girls gratefully continued their journey.

Acting justly is about doing the right thing.  This couple chose to do the best they could in response to the need of three complete strangers. 

We hear of many people crying out for justice – and there are many in our society who need justice doing for them.  Justice is rooted in the nature of God—he is the God of Justice—he will always do what's right.  Justice is something that God sees as a good thing, and he requires us to do the right thing; to act justly.  It's not an optional extra.

But justice cuts two ways.  In Micah we read of God preparing to execute judgement on his people because of the injustices they were doing.  In our own lives there are people who have done us injustice, and there are those to whom we have acted unjustly.  What would happen if God gave me what I deserve for the injustices I have done?  What would happen to you?

For this problem, justice doesn't go far enough.  That's where mercy comes into the picture.

We are told to

Love Mercy

When someone has done badly by us, it can be the hardest thing in the world to show them mercy, especially when there's no sign of them ever changing!  Even if there's genuine repentance on their part, the enormity of their offence against us can make mercy seem an impossibly costly action.  Yet we are called not merely to show mercy but to love mercy. 

If Justice is about giving people what they deserve, then Mercy is about giving people what they don't deserve.  It's quite clear in Micah that God isn't happy with his people.  Justice is set up and ready to roll but the longer view is one of mercy for God's people: Messiah is promised!

We've all done wrong, and what we deserve is justice.  But we don't need justice for our offences, we need mercy! Where would we be without mercy?  Without mercy there would be no relationship with God, no forgiveness, no new beginning, no hope.  If you know you deserved justice but instead you've  received mercy you will love it.

Mercy is a wonderful thing. For the one who receives it, there is a deep sense of gratitude and joy, not to mention relief.  For the one who bestows mercy, there is a tremendous joy in setting someone free and the restoration of relationship.  Mercy is one of the best and most generous gifts you can give.  If you've ever had to give mercy, you'll find that you love it.

Having received God's mercy, we must be willing to show mercy.  Jesus said, 'Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.'  And there's a kind of justice in that.

We all still get things wrong, and we go on needing mercy.  And we all need to go on showing mercy to those who wrong us.  Mercy oils the wheels of life and allows us to carry on travelling together.  Don't you just love it!

Mercy is something that God sees as a good thing, and he requires us to love it and to show it.  It's not an optional extra.

How do we learn what's right and how to be merciful?  We do that as we

Walk Humbly with our God

The Christian life is a journey. It's a long journey—a life-long journey.  That's why God calls us to walk with him, at a pace that give us time to learn and grow.  It's a journey that calls for commitment and determination.

God also calls us to live in relationship with him.  He hasn't sent us out on our own; he asks us to walk with him and, by implication, promises to walk with us.  He keeps company with us through all the hills and valleys of our experience.

He walks alongside us, all the way.  And yet it's clear who is to be the one leading the way.  We are told to walk humbly with our God.  After all, he's the one who's been around forever, he's the one with all the knowledge and wisdom.  He made us, and he knows best.  He wants to teach us his way of doing things so that we can do the same.  That's what it means to be a disciple.  We can't go our own way.  Proverbs 14:12 says, 'There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.'  We dare not go our own way.  

My wife and I have a dog.  We've had her from a puppy.  She was the most wilful, stubborn Labrador puppy you could imagine.  Many times I've asked myself, why on earth did we get a dog?  She's been really hard work.  She's three years old now, and she's finally begun to get the hang of behaving the way I want her to on our walks.  Walks are becoming more enjoyable—for both of us!  The better behaved she is, the more treats she gets (food is something very close to her heart!).  The more she's walked in my ways, the more freedom she's been allowed; she's now off the lead for most of the time. 

Jesus said in John 8, '31bIf you hold to my teaching, you really are my disciples.  32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'  The more we walk in his way, the greater the freedom we discover.  We need to allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate scripture for us, and for the truths we discover to change our minds and our living.

Walking humbly with our God is something that he sees as a good thing, and he requires us to do this essential thing.  It's not an optional extra.

Godly Nature

I said at the beginning that these requirements are rooted very firmly in the nature of God himself.  We see that perfectly displayed in Jesus Christ.  God sent his only Son to live as one of us so that he could willingly to take the penalty of our injustices, thus satisfying God's just demands of us and allowing him to show mercy to all who put their trust in Christ.  Christ walked in humility and obedience before his Father, and through his perfect sacrifice reconciled us with God so that we too can know him and walk with him, indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Earlier in our service, we noted that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.  What does this mean? Christ has already paid the penalty of our sins.  God will not unjustly exact a second payment from those whose account has been settled by Jesus!

Summary

For me, this Old Testament text has long been a foundation stone in my understanding of what it is to be a New Testament disciple of Jesus.  These three facets are inextricably intertwined.  Walking with God must decant something of his just and merciful nature into our lives; and it must overflow through us to others in our world in whatever ways we find available to us, be that in giving or in going.

So let's be determined to be the kind of people God calls us to be:
  • people who act justly
  • people who love mercy, and
  • people who walk humbly with our God.
This is the bare minimum and the sum total of all that God requires of us, and it's made possible through our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen!