Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On Crossing the Ocean of Life

No boat-builder designs an ocean-going yacht with plain-sailing in mind; he knows the sea too well.  His design must account for much more than the comfort of the crew: survival is the greater concern.  At sea, "What if . . . ?" is a pointless question, "When" a much more sensible approach.

There must be adequate beds for the crew to sleep in, a means of cooking that copes with the roll of the waves, ventilation for hot, balmy days in the sun but which will not let the rain in.  The cabin must be sealed against stormy seas.  The mast must withstand the strain of wind on sails, the hull the hammer-blows of wave upon wave crossed at speed.

There must be equipment for knowing where you are, and what is in your path, and keeping the boat on course when all you can see in the lightning flash is the top of the next wave and the bottom of lowering clouds.

The chances of success on crossing the ocean depends on the materials the boat is built from and the skill of its crew, and a good boat can be capsized and still right itself.  If the boat succumbs to the waves, there must be a lifeboat with food and water to sustain the crew until rescue, and the means to help searchers locate it.

Life's circumstances are the high seas on which the good ship Perseverance sails.  These waters are as dangerous as any faced by the sailor, yet many a believer launches upon them in a rowing boat with a picnic hamper as if on a bank holiday outing.

"We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22 NIV).  Do not be so foolish as to think your life will be plain-sailing.  It will not be.  You will enjoy calm, warm days but you will also face raging storms and angry seas.  Foaming reefs will threaten your passage, your destination will be hardly perceived, your whereabouts obscured.  You will be subjected to stresses and strains, capsized and possibly even crushed.

Think about the boat you sail in.  What is it built with? How well is it crewed?  Make sure it is well suited for the whole journey—half-way across the ocean is not far enough!  And take with you the lifeboat of hope.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

God Wants Fruitcake!

Readings

Matthew 7:21-27
Romans 11:33-12:6

Introduction

Hands up who likes cake!  Who prefers fruit cake?  And who prefers sponge?  For me, a good solid bit of fruit cake beats sponge cake every time.

Occasionally, my wife asks me to go shopping with her and, of course, I go willingly(!) in the hope that she'll reward me with a coffee and a slice of cake in a nice cafe. 

Imagine the scene.  We've gone into a cafe and looked at what's on offer in the cake display then found ourselves a table.  The waitress comes over and takes our order. "I'll have a filter coffee with milk please (I can't be doing with all this latte nonsense) and a piece of that fruitcake with the icing on the top."

Five minutes later, the waitress returns with our order and she puts down in front of me the coffee I asked for and a plate with a slice of icing on it.  "What's this?" I ask her. 

"It's icing," she says. “The sweetest bit!”

"This isn't what I'm expecting," I say.  "I want fruitcake.  Take this away!"

This is a perfectly reasonable response on my part.  If I've said what I want and I'm paying for it, I expect to get what I'm looking for.

As this sermon goes on, we'll see that our God has a certain expectation of what he is getting from us.  In the terms of this rather trivial parable, God is looking for fruitcake too, not just the icing.

God is looking for disciples.  We'll see that discipleship is
  • prescribed by Jesus
  • expected by the Father
  • enabled through the Holy Spirit 

Discipleship – Prescribed by Jesus

At the end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus says to the eleven remaining disciples “... go and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  This is what we know as the Great Commission, and it's something we may hear a lot of in days to come, if we haven't already.

The Great Commission is about mission but, in an age when many church buildings are falling empty, we need to be very clear about what the mission is.  For example, Jesus doesn't ask us to invite people to become church-goers.  He doesn't even ask us to convince people to become believers.  He commands us to make disciples.  This, I believe, is the key to church growth.

Actually, Jesus commands disciples to make disciples.  If we are to make disciples, then we need to know what a disciple is, and the best way to discover that is to be a disciple.

So what is a disciple?  The Greek word that we translate as “disciple” means “learner” or “apprentice.” In Jewish tradition, a rabbi would call apprentices. His disciples aimed to become like their rabbi: to think like him, to speak like him and to act like him. Eventually, they would become sufficiently competent to be able to call and train their own disciples. 

Jesus followed the same pattern.  He called and made disciples.  Those disciples were sent out to call and make disciples, and the church has propagated around the world and down the ages on this same model.

In those parts of the world where the church is growing, it's because discipleship is key to the life of the church.  John Wesley's work was successful because of his emphasis on discipleship. 

The church in our land today is failing because it is not growing disciples.

Discipleship – Required by the Father

Being a disciple of Jesus is crucially important.  In fact, God's destiny for us is that we grow to be like Jesus; as Paul writes to the Romans, God has “predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  If we set that aside, what do we become?

In the passage from Matthew 7 Jesus tells us who will get to go to heaven.  He makes it clear that it's not enough merely to call him Lord: he must actually be Lord.  He's very direct about it: those who will enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who do the will of his Father (v 21). 

In verse 22, Jesus voices some of the objections he expects to hear: “we prophesied in your name; we drove out demons in your name; we did miracles in your name.”  And in verse 23, Jesus says, “Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!'”

Now, Jesus is not decrying these activities.  No-one had more respect for prophecy than Jesus, and he even prophesied himself.  Jesus drove out many demons.  He did plenty of miracles.  And clearly, the disciples that followed on from Jesus did all these things too, and some of the spiritual gifts Christ gives to his church are exactly those things.  But, in terms of what God expects of us, these things are just the icing on the cake.

There is a tragedy in the message of Jesus here.  There are people who think that because God has apparently done something wonderful through them, or because they have genuinely encountered God in some way, that they are in, and it doesn't matter how they live.  There is a danger of getting so caught up in what we consider exciting and spectacular that we discount and neglect what is really important: doing the will of God. 

But there may be other objections Jesus may hear: “Lord, I sat in chapel every Sunday of my life; Lord, I put my money on the plate; Lord, I was on all the rotas; Lord, I was a Methodist Local Preacher!” There is a danger in being merely religious because it can give us a false sense of security: we're involved in church so we'll be OK. Not so: what is really important is doing the will of God.

In the parable at the end of our reading from Matthew, Jesus tells us just what that will is.  The passage stands at the end of what we know as the sermon on the mount, which begins in chapter 5.  Jesus says the wise man is the one “who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice.”  And the parable tells us there will be a difference between those who hear and do, and those who hear and do not do.

Here's some homework for you.  This week, make a point of reading the sermon on the mount.  As you read, ask the Holy Spirit to make the meaning plain to you.  These are the words that Jesus expects us to put into practice.  These are the words that convey the will of God for us, and set out the kind of life the Father expects us to live.

Discipleship – Enabled through the Holy Spirit

If we read through the sermon on the mount, and are honest with ourselves as we read, we'll find things in it that challenge the way we live.  We could get to the end and wonder how on earth we can live like that.

Do you remember what I said earlier?  A disciple is a learner, an apprentice.  Following Jesus as a disciple is to be involved in a process.  We will not be sinlessly perfect from the outset.  We will make mistakes along the way.  If you want evidence of that, look at the stories of the closest of Jesus' disciples.  They certainly got it wrong often enough, both before and after their conversion.

But there should be in each of us a determination to follow Jesus closely; that may well be a stumbling determination at best.  When I look back at my own tracks, I'm amazed that I'm still following, such have been my failures down the years.  But, I am determined to follow Jesus.  I will be a disciple.  I will not give up.

But how can we do it?  How can we make progress?  Well,
  • first of all, we must make the right beginning
  • then we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.
Let's look at the second of our passages in Romans 12.  Paul has been explaining how that the Jews have experienced a hardening for a season so that God's mercy may be available to the Gentiles.  At the beginning of chapter 12 he makes his appeal to the Roman believers on the basis of God's mercy.

A Right Beginning

If we are to make a right beginning, we have first to recognise that what we need from God is mercy: there is no automatic right of access to heaven.  Reading through the sermon on the mount ought to convince us of our need for mercy.  But the good news is that mercy is freely available to all who will turn to Christ because of his sacrifice on the cross. 

We are sinners, he was without sin; he took the punishment of those who will follow him, we can receive the rewards of his righteousness.  But look at the cost of salvation, and see the extravagance of God's mercy.

In Romans 12, Paul urges us, because of God's mercy, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.  We are no longer our own to do as we please.  We belong to God; just as we say in our covenant service, “I am no longer my own but yours.” (p288, 290 MWB). 

We've gathered together today for a worship service but Paul tells us that true and proper worship is all about living the whole of our lives for God.

Cooperating with the Holy Spirit

We are not robots.  We belong to God but we still have a will of our own.  The easiest thing in the world for us is to carry on doing our own thing, to run with the crowd, to fit in with the world, to chase our own ambition.  But Paul urges not to do that: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” he tells us, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

You see, we begin our walk with Christ in an act of repentance.  The Greek word for 'repent' is metanoia and it literally means 'change your mind', or change the way you think about things.  When we are converted, and the Holy Spirit comes in, that renewal of our thinking continues.  We see things differently once we are in Christ. 

Imagine standing outside York Minster and looking at the stained glass windows.  They are unimpressive and dull.  But go inside and look at them with the light shining through.  How different!

As the Holy Spirit opens up Scripture to us and reveals the way of Christ to us, he renews our minds and we see things differently.  The way we think governs how we live, and this new way of thinking can transform the way we live.  As Paul says to the Galatians, “... live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Gal 5:16)

But we have a choice.  If we choose the new way, we step out along the pathway of discovery.  We will find God's will to be good for us, and pleasing to us and perfect to us.

Yes, there will be times when what God wants very definitely conflicts with what we want or what we hoped for ourselves; no-one said following Jesus would be easy.  Sometimes we will make wrong choices: I know I've made enough of those.  But there is still mercy; when we stray, there is a way back onto the path.

And, as the rest of our reading from Romans shows, we are not on the road alone.  We have each other.  We can encourage each other when there are difficult choices to make.  We can support each other when someone makes a wrong choice and needs to find restoration.

Being disciples of Christ leads us into ways that are good, pleasing and perfect. 

Being disciples leads us to discover true freedom.  John 8:31b,32 “Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'”

Being disciples leads us into close fellowship with God.  John 14:23 “...'Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.'”  Then, we will never hear those dreadful words, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.”

Summary

So, in summary,
  • Christ prescribes discipleship as the way for his people,
  • the Father is looking for disciples who do his will,
  • the Holy Spirit is with us to lead, guide and transform us as we follow the way of discipleship.

Practically, what should you do? Make sure you've made a right beginning. Seek earnestly for God until you know you've found him; then hand your life over to him and invite the Holy Spirit to be with you and in you. Read the Scriptures, pray, live in the light of what your discover. Find others on the same journey and meet with them to study Scripture, pray, share your life, encourage and be encouraged.

Being a disciple is vitally important. Let me be clear: we do not earn salvation by our discipleship. Salvation is always the free gift of God to all who will repent and believe the gospel. But accepting God's gift of salvation is also to end our independence from him, and to end our rebellion against him. We must learn again how to live. If we are unwilling to change, then we have failed to understand the gospel.

At the end of the passage in Matthew, Jesus told a short parable: a contrast between two houses, one built on sand, the other on rock.  We can imagine that these houses looked very similar from the ground up but, after the time of testing came, only the house on the rock remained standing.

What kind of foundation does your house have?  Is it built on the sand of your own ways?  Or is it built on the rock of Christ's words?

Be the fruitcake, not just the icing!