Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of God


Luke 17:11-37


In the short period leading to the recent election, we've seen quite enough of politicians sidestepping the questions they were asked.  They seem incapable of giving us straight answers!  The outcome of the election perhaps shows that we're clever enough to notice what they're up to.  But are they clever enough to notice that we've noticed?

In the passage we've listened to, the Pharisees asked a direct question of Jesus, and he seemed, on first impression, not to answer directly.  Certainly, his answer wasn't what they expected.  But his answer was truthful, to the point, and gave them something to think about.  We can see this in verses 20 and 21, where we read, "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'".

The Pharisees' question: When will the kingdom of God come?
The Lord's answer, paraphrasing loosely: Your expectations are wrong; the kingdom is already here!

I want us to think today about what the kingdom of God is, how it works, and why we need it.  We'll do that with three headings to guide us:

  • Exploring the kingdom of God
  • Demonstrating the kingdom of God
  • Responding to the kingdom of God.

Exploring the Kingdom of God

The Jews expected God's kingdom to be established in physical form in the land of Israel, booting out the Romans and bringing them freedom under God as their only king.

They couldn't fail to be impressed by the ever-present display of Roman power and order, which served to enforce the absolute authority of the emperor.  Perhaps they imagined the kingdom of God to be much like that, but more powerful, deployed in their favour, and sweeping away all their enemies.  But when would that happen?

Jesus spoke on numerous public occasions about the kingdom of God, so he was the obvious person to have a view on when the kingdom would come.  So the Pharisees went and asked him.  There's no hint of any attempt to catch Jesus out in his words, so perhaps they were genuinely interested in his answer.

Were they puzzled or confused by his answer?  In effect, he tells them that the kingdom of God isn't  about powerful shows of dominating force, nor is it found in any geographical location.  In our modern way of thinking, we have the idea that God's kingdom is up there somewhere where God lives—but even that idea is ruled out by the Lord's answer.

Jesus tells them—and us!—that the kingdom of God is “in your midst.”  He wasn't telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was within their sect.  Looking more closely into the language used, we could translate his words as saying that the kingdom of God is “within your grasp.”  This fits in nicely with what Jesus says in Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These ideas would've been a great encouragement to early Christian readers of Luke's gospel, spread around the Roman world as they were.  The kingdom of God was present wherever they were—and they belonged to it!

We all like to belong.  Our families give us a sense of belonging—that's not always a comfortable sense, is it?  We see church as a kind of family—and, let's be honest, that isn't always comfortable either!  Others see church as a kind of social club—and, obviously, there is society among us that helps us feel we belong.  But the kingdom of God isn't just a family, or a society—it's not even church as we experience it!  It's not a human institution cobbled together by like-minded people.  It's not something that we can bring about by our own efforts.  It's literally God's kingdom—it originates with him and he's made it accessible to anyone and everyone!  In sending Jesus, he's placed it “within our grasp!”

Our modern-world view of kings and kingdoms is very different from the ancient world's view.  Back then, Kings had authority.  They ruled.  These days, monarchs are largely notional figures: heads of state with no or little real power.  Our own queen, for example, reigns—and has done wonderfully for many years—but she doesn't rule.  We can't understand God's kingdom by imposing our modern views on it.

God is king in the ancient sense, not the modern—but he's a benevolent king.  He doesn't demand that we struggle and strive to attain his kingdom, he sends it right down among us so that we can find it and discover his fantastic love and grace for ourselves, and know that we belong whatever our circumstances.

The kingdom of God comprises all people who live willingly under the reign and rule of God.  People who are disciples of Jesus.  People who abandon their own ways to live as God requires: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in relationship with God.  People who pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—and mean it, to the extent that they actively engage with finding and doing his will.

The kingdom is within our grasp.  Have you grasped it?

Demonstrating the Kingdom of God

Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn't something that can be observed.  It's not like an army arrayed on a battlefield, or a geographical state we can pinpoint on a map.  But, quite clearly, God's kingdom is demonstrable, and Jesus went about making the kingdom evident and close at hand to all he met.  We can see that in the story of the ten lepers.  They came to Jesus and he healed them—that was pretty amazing!  One of them—a Samaritan for goodness sake!—discovered he was healed and came back to Jesus, thanking him and praising God in a loud voice!  Luke makes a point of mentioning that the man was a Samaritan: the kingdom can touch anyone, even the despised Samaritans; it wasn't just for the Jews!  Who might we see today as despised social outcasts?  Well, the kingdom of God is within their grasp too!

We heard of a modern-day example of the kingdom being made visible in the film clip [] we watched earlier.  Let me remind you of the salient points.
  • Joanna and Julian had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and once that had seen a successful outcome, they went to God in prayer to find out what they should do next.
  • They eventually heard about the terrible conditions in Pollsmoor Prison, with 279 acts of violence in one year.  They realised that this wasn't God's will.
  • So they visited the prison every day for a year, and introduced a very ordinary programme: bible studies and prayer meetings.
  • In the following year there were only 2 acts of violence, and just 8 the year after that.
  • What was their secret? recognising that God was already present in the prison; his kingdom was already within the grasp of the prisoners.  All they had to do was make God and his kingdom visible.
Take careful note how this was discovered in prayer, through spending time in God's presence; and our circuit leadership has been encouraging us to do that.  There's a world of a difference between, on the one hand, asking God to bless our ideas and, on the other hand, finding out what he wants to do and then becoming a blessing to others by engaging with his will.

How do we demonstrate the presence of God's kingdom?  The point has been made on numerous occasions that completing our “Room to Grow” building project was not the final goal.  Now that we have room, it's time for us to grow!  How do we do that?  Just what is God's will here in Wylam?  How do we make the kingdom visible?  We, too, like Joanna and Julian, need to pray, to seek out his will.

But there are some things we already know about.  For example, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35 NIV).  It's God's will that we love each other so much that the people around us take notice.  And, while we're at it, we can let that love overflow to them!

God has a plan for us.  He wants to make that plan known to us.  He has things in mind for us to do that make his kingdom visible.  It need not be complicated, and we can begin with prayer and by loving each other even better than we already do, and grow from there; and if God throws in some miracles along the way . . .

Responding to the Kingdom of God

The kingdom is in our midst, it's within our grasp.  But it's important that we grasp it for ourselves. It's been made available to us because it's something we desperately need.

All of us are in need of the salvation that comes with God's kingdom; we can none of us save ourselves.  All of us are offered the gift of salvation found only in God's kingdom.  All of us who grasp the kingdom, and live under God's rule, can know for certain that we are saved.  All in the kingdom can be saved to the uttermost, transformed to be like Jesus.

Right now, the door to the kingdom is open.  But this is a time-limited offer.  In the latter part of our reading, Jesus gave his disciples a fuller answer to the Pharisees' question.  There will be a time when Christ returns and the kingdom appears in power.  At that time there'll be a clear distinction between those who are on the inside and those on the outside.  At that point, the door will be closed. 
Christ may not come in our lifetime but, at the end of our lives, we'll certainly be held to account by God.  Are we on the inside or the outside?

The kingdom is within our grasp!  So how do we enter?  First of all, it requires a step of faith, a decision to trust in Jesus for forgiveness and the free gift of salvation, and with the rest of your life.  Secondly, Jesus told people to repent.  That's a total change of direction.  It means to recognise our need of forgiveness, to abandon our own ways, our own thoughts, and to follow Christ.  Living in the kingdom means learning to live under God's law of love. It's a lifetime's pilgrimage of discovery.

If you've not yet responded to God's offer of a place in his kingdom, today would be a good day to respond!


It's important to have a proper understanding of what the kingdom of God is and what it means for our lives.  As the Pharisees demonstrated for us, you can be as religious as you like and completely miss the point!

The kingdom of God may not be observable, as Jesus said, but neither is it invisible!  Our main response to God's grace in our lives is to discover and live out his will, and so make the kingdom evident in the world around us.

Salvation is found only within the kingdom of God.  God hasn't put this beyond our reach;  he's put it within our grasp so that anyone can find it and benefit from it.

Let's grasp the kingdom and live our lives so that others can see it and grasp it for themselves!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Means of Grace


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


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.


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.


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!


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!