Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Walk With Jesus


In Spring this year, I had a most marvellous experience, an encounter with Jesus such as I've never known before – or since, for that matter. I was out with the dog, a yellow Labrador retriever (somewhat more unruly than she still is) and coming down with a cold. The problem was, my Dad was soon to arrive and the last thing I wanted to do was to pass on an illness that he could well do without at his age and so far from home. 

So, I started to pray, 'Lord, please take this cold away; I desperately don't want Dad to get it.' There was a check in my mind and I went off in a different direction, as my mind sometimes takes me. 'I've never known you cure a common cold, Lord, so how on earth will you get me out of this body when I die and put me in a new one?' Yes, my mind is often that weird. Actually, it's a question I've pondered on a number of occasions, and never with a satisfactory answer. Will God upload me somehow just as my body's last outward breath kicks in, store me in some vast, heavenly data bank, then download me into a new, everlasting model? Or will the essence of me emerge into a new realm, like a leaf bursting from a germinating seed? Who knows?

Anyway, as I gazed down the wooded path that stretched out before me, my mind flipped again. What will it be like to meet Jesus? I imagined him walking down the path towards me. I thought I wouldn't look down as though ashamed to be in the presence of one so holy because there would be something very intimate and welcoming about our meeting. And suddenly it was as though he was actually there. In my mind's eye, I looked on Jesus in wonder, and he looked back at me, smiling. I became captivated by that imagined smile, and understood in some measure the wonderful extent of his acceptance of me. I felt no compulsion that I should throw myself to the ground and worship. I was in the presence of a friend who loved me, and who had turned out especially to welcome me. He was delighted to see me and I was thrilled to see him. (In my mind's eye, I said, this was not a vision of Jesus.)

Then there was another change. For the next 45 minutes or so, I walked on in the almost tangible presence of Jesus—not in heaven but here on earth, there on that wooded path. What began as a flight of fancy was now an encounter with Jesus, and I revelled in the company I was keeping. I bet we've all thought or said, 'When I meet Jesus I've got a whole load of questions I want to ask him.' I found myself pushing that idea away. I didn't want to ask him anything (even though I have a whole host of questions), I was just enjoying being with him, walking along beside him: him, me, and an unusually well-behaved dog. 

I've tried since to relive this experience, to invoke the same sense of presence, but I cannot. It seems to have been a one-off, special gift. Nevertheless, it helps me to understand the reality of his presence with me here and now, even when I am unmindful of it, and that I do not have to strive to get his attention. It enhances my sense of belonging to the family of God, and that I am welcome, any time. 

I'm looking forward to meeting him for real.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Life in the Spirit

Reading

Romans 8:1-26a

Introduction

There is a restaurant known to me which, in the past, didn't fare too well.  It wasn't very family friendly and the proprietors didn't really know how to get the best from it.  Its customer base dwindled.  So they sold it. 

The new owners revamped the décor, introduced a new menu, and employed friendly staff.  People discovered the place, enjoyed eating good food in very pleasant surroundings, and passed the word around.  The restaurant started with two staff members serving from behind the counter.  Within a year, custom increased so much that they've now introduced table service, employ 35 waiting staff, and are very busy most days, all day; so much so that it's as well to phone ahead and reserve your table. 

It's a special place, and we enjoy going there.  It's a roaring success—and all because of new owners  who saw the potential, knew what was needed, the changes that had to be made and how to achieve them.

When a person becomes a Christian, something quite remarkable happens: The Holy Spirit comes to live within that person.  He or she is “under new ownership”, and the One in charge sees the potential, knows what's needed, the changes to be made, and how to achieve them.

Today, I want to try
  1. to show the difference the Holy Spirit brings to the believer,
  2. to show the distinction the Holy Spirit confers on the believer, and
  3. to ground these points in the real experience of daily life.

I'll do this with three headings:
  • The Transformation of the Spirit
  • The Test of the Spirit
  • The Tension of Life in the Spirit. 

The Transformation of the Spirit

Paul tells us there are two realms we can live in: the realm of the flesh, and the realm of the Spirit.  When the word 'flesh' is used in scripture in this way it refers to our natural, sinful state, our fallen nature.  Living in the realm of the flesh doesn't necessarily mean pursuing the “pleasures of the flesh”, with all the lurid connotations of that phrase.  We don't have to do desperately wicked stuff to be living in the flesh.  We can live fairly decent lives, even be church-goers, but have no real interest in God or in spiritual things. 

Paul tells us that living in our natural state is not much use to us as far as God is concerned.  Pandering to our natural tendencies leads us eventually to death, and I'm not referring to the demise of our mortal bodies, something we all must face.  In our natural state, we can't achieve the requirements of God's law.  In fact, we just can't please him.

By way of illustration, our dog is in kennels at the moment.  It's not our dog I want to refer to but the person we initially contacted at the kennels.  First of all, it was difficult getting through to her.  When we got through we were assured our dog would be pencilled in for the dates we wanted.  The person was away from the office but promised to call later to get all the details needed.  Well, she didn't call.  We tried several times to call her again but kept getting her message service.  Texting achieved no response.  Eventually, we spoke to someone else, only to find the first person had left the job only that day.  We discovered our dog wasn't booked in, and others had called to complain that expected contact hadn't happened.  This person didn't have her mind set on the job she was in.  Her mind was set on the next thing.  She'd turned up for work and gone through the motions but failed to do what was required of her.  We weren't pleased, her other clients weren't pleased, and her boss wasn't pleased either.  As far as her work was concerned, her head was somewhere else: she was living in the wrong realm!

God makes it possible for Christians to live in the realm of the Spirit.  As Paul wrote, “You … are not in the realm of the flesh but in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.” 

The Spirit within makes us alive to God, and releases us from the grip of our old way of life.

The Spirit brings us a new freedom.  By following the Spirit we can to choose not to sin.  Our free will hasn't been removed from us: the possibility of sinning remains, but Paul warns us that following our old ways will lead us to death.  With the Spirit, we can live God's way, and we can please him.

Through the Spirit we're adopted into a new family, and have a new destiny.  As verse 16 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.”  We belong to God's family with full rights as though we were his natural-born children.  We are God's children, not his slaves; we are fully accepted, not subject to an owner's whim.  And all the blessing of heaven awaits us!

We have new life, new freedom, new family and a new destiny.  What a wonderful difference the Holy Spirit makes!

The Test of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit isn't an optional extra.  All who truly belong to Christ have the Holy Spirit.  Conversely, as Paul tells us, any who don't have the Spirit do not belong to Christ; they're still in the realm of the flesh.  This is a clear test and distinguishes not only believers from unbelievers but the Christian faith from all others.

We can expect the presence of the Spirit, and certainly the effects of the Spirit, to be tangible in our lives.  How can we know we have the Spirit and therefore belong to Christ?  How can we apply the test?  In rehearsing the things that follow, I hope most, if not all, here will find encouragement and assurance in what I say.  There may be some here who realise that, actually, they don't have the Spirit and they need to get right with God.

Here a three things to think about.

  1. The indwelling Spirit brings assurance of salvation.  I'm sure we've all heard John Wesley's testimony of assurance: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  This wasn't a special favour for John Wesley; we can all know this same inner witness, and know we are saved! 
  2. I've recently read one of John Wesley's sermons in which he talked about this inner witness of the Spirit.  He wasn't convinced by people who claimed this experience but whose lives didn't measure up.  It's nice to know he agrees with me …  As verse 5 says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  So, we can apply the test by asking ourselves, what is my mind set on?  Or, what am I living for?  For myself, or for God?
  3. Perhaps closely linked with those questions, we can ask, is the Spirit's presence evidenced by the fruit of our lives?  In Galatians 5 we read about the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  This is one fruit with many segments, like an orange, and all of these segments should be in each of our lives in increasing measure as we follow the leading of the Spirit within.  We may need input from someone else on this one.  Often, when we look critically at ourselves, we see only our short-comings whereas others can see the good things.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor 13:5).  A little introversion is no bad thing.  And it's wonderful to be certain of your salvation!

The Tension of Life in the Spirit

As Christians, we live with the 'now and not yet' paradox of the faith.   We live in the realm of the Spirit but we are surrounded by people who don't.  We are already adopted into God's family but the full benefit of that adoption lies in the distant future; and we have to wait patiently.  Paul tells us that even creation itself creaks and groans, as though it were longing for the end to come and for all to be put right.

Paul acknowledges the problems of living in this world but gives us something to focus on that will keep us going.  He talks of all that lies ahead far outweighing our present sufferings.

In Ephesians chapter 1, Paul describes the Holy Spirit as “… a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance …”  Because we have the Holy Spirit, we can know that heaven awaits us for sure.  For the believer, death is not something to fear.  It's just the gateway to all that's promised us in the presence of God.  Actually, one of the most formative experiences I've had was my father-in-law's funeral.  He was a godly man.  He knew where he was going, and was genuinely looking forward to getting there.  Naturally, we were sorry for him to go but the thought of where he is now, for me at least, transformed a sad event into a deeply joyful experience!  What wonderful prospects we have!

But!
In the meanwhile …

… we have the Holy Spirit to help us in our present sufferings.  Here's how the Spirit helped me through one particularly dark time.

One Sunday in September 2000, I stood in church, worshipping with my eyes closed.  Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw myself inside a dark, cylindrical space.  The walls were opaque and without texture or anything to grasp.  There was complete darkness apart from a thin crack of light at the bottom where the cylinder touched the floor.  As I'm not given to seeing things, this was a bit of a surprise, so I took careful note of the details.  I had no idea what it meant at the time.

In November that year, my mother became unwell.  In the following March, she was admitted to hospital.  In October, she died from lung cancer.  During her illness, I began an imperceptible descent into clinical depression.  After about two years, I finally couldn't cope.  I was off work for 13 weeks, and my GP put me on antidepressants.

By this point, I'd lost all interest in church but sometimes went for my wife's sake.  I sat there one day wondering why on earth I was there at all.  Does God exist?  What is this all about?  Have I wasted 35 years pursuing something unreal?  I was ready to give up on faith completely.

In exasperation, I said to the ceiling, “Is God really there?”  Then, I heard clearly in my mind, “I warned you this would happen,” and the picture of the dark cylinder came back into view.  The image perfectly described my depression: isolating, almost completely devoid of light, nothing to get hold of.  I broke down and wept, because now I knew for sure: God is real, and he loves me more than I ever understood before.  And he had done something to make sure I didn't give up.

This was the turning point in my illness.  It took two more years to climb out of  depression but I knew God had hold of me, that he understood, and was with me in the depths of my circumstances. 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul says.  I'm nothing special.  The same Holy Spirit is in every believer and stands ready to help us all.

Concluding Challenge

All Christians have the Holy Spirit.  There's no question about that.  The question is, are you a Christian?  Do you have the Holy Spirit?  Are you under old or new ownership?

In Acts 1:8, Jesus promises his disciples, “… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you ...”  The word translated as 'power' can also mean ability, energy, authority, strength.  At the Spirit's coming, the disciple were transformed from people who ran for their lives into people ready to lay down their lives for Jesus. The Spirit puts a tremendous potential within us and we can achieve things we never thought possible.  Let's allow the Holy Spirit in us to unlock that potential and revolutionise our lives for the glory of God. 

Receiving the Spirit in the first place may be a one off thing but Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 to go on being filled with the Spirit.  When was the last time you were full of the Holy Spirit?  Go on being filled with the Spirit!

Life can be a struggle.  There's no denying that.  But God's Spirit stands ready to help us in all our weakness.  Let's learn to face life's difficulties with confidence in the Holy Spirit, and with a solid and certain hope for the inheritance that lies ahead.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wealth, Worry and Nuclear Physics

Readings

Matthew 6:19-34, Luke 12:13-21

Introduction

Wealth!  “You can't take it with you.”  That's what they say, isn't it?  I had an uncle whose life-story was a classic rags-to-riches tale.  His usual response to that expression was, “I've no intention of going!”  Sadly, he had no choice in the matter in the end.  When he drew in his last breath, he was a very wealthy man but, when he finished breathing it out again, he had absolutely nothing: he took not a penny of it with him.

Another uncle of mine used to say, “Money can't make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.”  And I suppose there is some measure of truth in that...

In the passage we read from Matthew, Jesus draws our attention to what really matters in life.  He challenges attitudes which are just as prevalent in today's society as in New Testament times, and shares the secret of how to make sure we have something to take with us when we go.  I want to examine Jesus' words using a framework of three simple questions:

  • What's your heart set on?
  • What's on your mind?
  • What's your priority? 

What's your Heart set on?

There are all sorts of reasons why people amass wealth and possessions.  Some just seem to have a knack for it, and everything they touch turns to gold.  For some, it's about status: their wealth says something about them; they are important.  Apparently, the Pharisees thought their wealth was God's reward for their keeping his laws.  For them, wealth said, “I am righteous, and it is plain for all to see.”  For yet others, it's about security: if they have plenty, they can buy themselves out of difficulties.

Whatever reason we may have for getting rich, Jesus makes the point that our worldly possessions are very unreliable.  They can decay, they can be destroyed, they can be taken from us.  In a way, Jesus himself points out to us that we can't take our worldly wealth with us and that one day, like my uncle, and like it or not, we have to go!

He brings into focus the fact of heaven and that our eternal security is of far greater importance than any safety we may secure for the few short years we are here.  Treasure on earth will fail us; only treasure in heaven will endure.  In the passage we heard from Luke, Jesus tells us that real life does not consist in an abundance of possessions, and that to be focussed only on this life is a very serious mistake.

Verses 22 and 23 in Matthew 6 have something to say about what our attitude to possessions reveals about the condition of our hearts.  These are strange verses in a way, talking about eyes and light the way they do.  Let me read them again, using alternative renderings that bring out some more of the meaning in the original Greek.  “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  The eyes of the person who holds on to this world's goods only lightly are open, letting in light.  The eyes of the greedy, possessive person are narrowed and keep the light out!  Grasping at wealth will damage your health!

Wealth itself is not a bad thing; it's a neutral thing that can be used for good or bad.  But it cannot and must not be the focus of our lives.  People who are intent on having wealth probably take the view that their wealth serves them, enabling them to get what they want.  Jesus however turns that idea on its head.  “You cannot serve God and money,” he says.

How do you become a servant of money?  By making it the thing you live for it becomes your idol.  But there is only room for one God in our lives.  God will not share that place with anything else.  In Exodus 20, where the ten commandments are listed, verse 3 says, “You shall have no other gods before [or besides] me.

So, to revisit the first of our questions, what's your heart set on?, ask yourself, what matters most to me? where is my treasure?  Jesus says, “...where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v21)  There is room for only one God, and being in his kingdom must be our primary focus.

What's on your Mind?

Greed is not the only reason for getting money.  Of course, we need money to live.  We have to eat, buy clothes and houses and all the other essentials of life.  To do that we have to have at least enough, and we all like a little bit more for that rainy day...

I know from experience how easy it is to worry about not having enough, especially in these uncertain times of recession.  Worry is a terrible thing that we all do and makes absolutely no difference to our predicaments; except making them seem larger, and something to worry about even more than we already have.

Why do people worry?  As Jesus says, worrying can't make our lives a single hour longer.  In fact, we now know that the stress of worry can make our lives considerably shorter!  As well as pointing out the futility of worrying, Jesus gives us a very good reason not to worry: we have a loving Father who knows what we need and promises to meet our need.

Once again, he draws into focus what matters most.  Having life and existence is of more import than the things we worry about.  Jesus came to bring us eternal life; that's his priority for us, and it needs to be our priority too.  But we need food and drink and clothing don't we?  Shouldn't these things be important to us?  Doesn't it make sense that we worry about these things?  Jesus puts us straight with examples from nature.

Why worry about food and drink?  Look at the birds, Jesus says.  All they need is available to them.  They don't worry about food and drink and spend all their time working.  God provides for them.  We are more important to God than the birds; will he not provide for us too?

Now, he is talking about the birds living in the very different climate of Palestine, where their food is in plentiful supply all year round.  We have to take account of that because some of the birds around us do stock up for winter.  But even here the birds are provided for: often by people acting as unwitting agents of God.  So the example still stands.  You are more important than the birds so don't worry about food and drink: God will provide the means!

As for clothing, look at the wild flowers: how beautiful are they?  More beautiful than the most opulent king Israel ever knew, and they don't do any work for it.  God designed them to be as they are!  I don't know anything about Palestinian wild flowers, but think about a British meadow.  What a riot of beauty!  There are speedwell, violets, buttercups, field-campion, scarlet pimpernel, primroses, cowslips, daisies, dandelions, to name but a few.  It's just a field of grass but look at it!  We are more valuable than grass; won't our God provide for us?

Look at the flowers here in church.  I know they are cultivated but, all the same, we've only been working with what God put in there to begin with.  Aren't they beautiful?  You are more important to God than even the flowers in church!

The biggest problem with worry is that it is a great enemy of faith.  If worry is the enemy of faith, then faith is the antidote to worry: faith in our heavenly Father who values us so much that he sent his Son to die for us!  If he's prepared to do that, can't we trust him for the basic things of our earthly lives?  God knows our need.  If he is number one in our lives, he will provide our needs.

Actually, looking back over my life to times when I've not had a great deal of spare cash to play with, my needs were always met.  At university in the 70s, I had enough to buy the food and books I needed; other people have bought me clothes; I had somewhere to live. 

But you'll be surprised to know I'm not perfect.  My wife is naturally more generous than I am, and I had some concerns that, unless we were careful, we wouldn't have enough for ourselves.  And then God spoke to me through something I wrote myself in a creative writing class.  He assured me he was with me and that I need not fear not having enough.  There's something wonderful when God speaks to you so clearly: it changes your life.  I put away my fear and allowed myself to live more generously, more contentedly, because God is with me always, and what more can I need?  I've been retired for a year now and have less income but I have enough and some to share, and just as much of God as I always did—and he comes in endless supply.  Why did I have so little faith?

To worry is to live like a pagan.  They have to run after material concerns because they don't have a heavenly Father who knows and supplies their needs.  We do!

So, to revisit our second question, what's on your mind?, ask yourself, am I worrying like a pagan? Or am I trusting in my loving heavenly Father?  Let's trust him!

What's your Priority?

Jesus began his ministry with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17).  The whole purpose of his coming was to make God's kingdom accessible to us, and now he tells us that finding the kingdom is the most important thing in our lives; and so it is!

There's a short phrase that sums up for us the essential point of his message in verse 33 of our passage: “...seek first [the Father's] kingdom and his righteousness...

I looked this verse up in the Greek and I was surprised by what I found.  The word for “first” is “proton”.  As I'm a physicist, that had an interesting resonance for me.  You see, every atom in the universe has at least one proton in its nucleus.  The number of protons in an atom determines what kind of atom it is: hydrogen has one proton, oxygen has eight protons.   Fundamentally, the number of protons determines the behaviour of the atom and the kind of interactions it can have with other atoms.

Now, Jesus clearly isn't talking about nuclear physics here but it's insightful for us to reflect on this.  The kingdom of God is to be fundamental to our existence.  God wants our identity to be defined by his kingdom.  He wants our character to be defined by kingdom values.  Our relationships and all our interactions with others are to be governed by kingdom values.  Then we can show his righteousness to the world, a righteousness that isn't based on social status or our own efforts.

None of this comes to us naturally.  That's why Jesus tells us to seek God's kingdom.  Only God's kingdom will endure.  Only in God's kingdom can we find everlasting security.  That's why Jesus tells us to make it the first thing in our lives.

So, to revisit our last question, what's your priority? ask yourself, who am I living for? For myself, or for God and his kingdom?

Summary

In our passage, the Lord has challenged materialism, warning that to live that way is to serve the wrong God and cannot give us security beyond this life.  He's urged us to have faith in our Father instead of worrying—as if there were no loving God.  And he tells us to make finding God's kingdom the most important thing in our lives.  And he's promised God's provision of our everyday needs.

We can know God's kingdom in our lives here and now.  It's important that we do!  The treasure we lay up in heaven is the only thing we can keep when we leave this world.

Seek first God's kingdom!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thomas the Doubter

Reading

John 20:19-31

Introduction

Not much is said about Thomas in scripture.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely list him among the twelve closest disciples of Jesus.  John gives us a little more information about him. 

When John first mentions Thomas, Jesus has declared his intent to go to the tomb of Lazarus despite the warnings that the Jews had already tried to stone him once and would do so again.  Thomas, with heavy resignation, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

The next time Thomas appears, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them but that they know the way to where he is going.  Thomas, not able to make any sense of this, butts in with, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?

In the account we've heard read today, Thomas sticks to what he knows: he saw Jesus crucified; saw the Romans make sure he was dead by spearing him; saw the tomb and the stone rolled in place.  Dead people don’t come back so, regardless of anything anyone says they saw, Jesus is dead.  For him to believe otherwise he must see it for himself:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.

He seemed to have little confidence in his closest associates or in their ability to see things right.  Ever since, he's been known as Doubting Thomas which is somewhat of an unkindness, if the legend of his subsequent activities is true.  But, at this stage of his experience, he epitomises unbelief for us, just one week after the most significant sequence of events in human history.

His unbelief raises a few questions for us.
  • What does unbelief look like?  
  • Where does it come from?  
  • What effect does it have on us?  
  • What can we do about it?

What Does Unbelief Look Like?

The first symptom of Thomas’s unbelief is that he rejects the evidence of credible witnesses. 

The people telling him that Christ was alive were not strangers.  They were people known to him, people like himself.  He'd spent three years in their company, and had shared their experiences.  The only difference was that Thomas was missing when Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  They were overjoyed, and eager to tell Thomas they had seen the Lord.

We can imagine the logic behind Thomas’s reaction.  “I’m sure you think you did, but things like that don’t happen.  If it makes you happy, then good for you; but I’m a realist—you can’t expect me to believe the impossible.”  Thomas said he would not believe unless he saw it for himself.  Perhaps he thought the stress had all been too much for them and they'd lost the plot.

Are we not the same?  We meet people who claim a tangible experience of God.  They have the embarrassing habit of talking about God all the time.  They seem to have a bit more joy than the rest of us.  We say, “I won’t believe God can touch anyone in this way unless he touches me too.  But that isn’t likely to happen because God doesn’t do that sort of thing, and I don’t need it.” 

Another symptom is that Thomas rejects the words of Jesus.  Somehow, all Jesus had taught had gone over his head.  Jesus had explained to the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  (Matthew 16:21) 

We are also very good at judging things not against the Bible but against our own interpretation of the Bible, or even explaining the Bible away where it doesn't fit our experience:
  • There have been times of silence from God before and this is another one. 
  • God healed then but doesn’t today. 
  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for now.
We avoid the truth because it's easier than calling our experience into question. 

Our apparent religion leaves us in danger of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Ti 3:5).

Where Does Unbelief Come From?

What is unbelief anyway?  It's not merely absence of faith; I think it's something more sinister than that.

It's not just having questions about the truth of something.  We all have honest questions about some of the things we believe.  It’s not that we don’t believe, more that we haven’t yet found the right perspective on the problem.  There’s nothing wrong with that. 

Unbelief is more of an inability to believe something, or even a determination not to believe something.  Look at what Thomas said in verse 25.  Paraphrasing, “Unless my exacting proofs are given I WILL NOT believe.”  He's already made his mind up!

How did Thomas get into this state?  One cause of unbelief can be our circumstances.  By tradition, Thomas was a carpenter, like Jesus, but we can hardly blame his occupation for his cynicism.  Perhaps he suffered terrible disillusionment when all his hopes for Jesus failed at Calvary.  What would he have thought after the crucifixion?  It all came to nothing in the end.  You fool!  Fancy being taken in by all that.

We can well understand Thomas's reluctance to join another risky adventure.  Thomas needed his perspective changing if he was to recover faith.

How many people have lost faith because of a sudden reversal of fortunes?  Could it be that it's not that Jesus has failed but that their expectations have been misplaced?  Might we need a change of perspective?

I have friends who, some years ago, lost their daughter at the age of eight through a tragic accident.  People said to them, “How can you believe in a God who lets this happen?”  Their response was, “How will we ever get through this without God's help?”

The apostle Paul gives us a big hint about another source of unbelief in 2 Corinthians 4:3.  He writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel...”.  People are locked into unbelief because Satan has blinded them to truth.  As “the god of this world”, he's pulling the strings of our society.

In the west, the Age of Reason has robbed us of faith. We look for rational explanations.  Where we can’t find one, we paper over the cracks with the idea that one day, when we have more knowledge, we will find one.  Well, one day it will be too late!  Perhaps the only explanation is God! 

Then, we have our affluent society.  We have no apparent need of God.  We can take care of ourselves.  We don’t need faith when we’ve money in the bank! 

Even as believers, we swim in the same soup.  We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society.  We cannot rely on only what we can see.

Once when I went scuba diving with a friend in the sea at Whitley Bay,  we were looking for a shipwreck we knew was there.  Visibility was awful, and we were tempted to give up, but we had a compass bearing to follow.  We pressed on and found not only the wreck but an enormous lobster and an octopus!  We'd have missed out if we'd gone only by what we could see.

Thomas was not alone in his unbelief, of course.  All the disciples were numbed in their senses.  All had lived in the world influenced by Satan but we can’t blame it all on Satan and circumstance.  Perhaps they all needed to hear the words that Jesus spoke to two others on the road to Emmaus.  “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25).  Our own hearts can be faulty.

I confess the often slowness of my own heart to believe.  I am an analytical person by nature and by training.  There is nothing wrong with that but my tendency has been to over-analyse things that affect me personally.  I've identified all the problems.  I've looked for the low-risk option.  I've tended to rule out steps of faith.  For me, this is unbelief.  God wants me to live by faith not to restrict myself to my own perspective.

We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society. As Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it."

What Effect Does Unbelief Have On Us?

The writer to the Hebrews says of the Israelites “...they were not able to enter [into God's rest], because of their unbelief.” (He 3:19).  Unbelief will keep us out of what God has for us.  Thomas, for a while, missed out on the joy of the other disciples because of his unbelief. 

I believe we are at a very significant time in the life of our Circuit: it could be make or break for us.  I believe God wants to work in Tynedale.  There's a wave coming in and, like a surfer, we need to catch it.  I don't want us to miss out on riding God’s wave of renewal because we don't have the faith to see it. We need to get in the water where the wave will be, not wait to see if the wave is really there.  If we only watch from the beach, the wave will break on the shore and be gone.

The writer to the Hebrews also warns, “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (He 3:12).  This points us to the biggest danger of unbelief.  The writer here is not saying get rid of people with unbelief but see to it they find a remedy because unbelief can turn them away from God.

What Can We Do About Unbelief?

Here are three remedies to think about: the grace of God, the evidence, and personal choice.

First, think of the grace the Lord Jesus showed to Thomas.  He came back when Thomas was there and dealt very personally and directly with him.  He made sure that Thomas got to see his hands and side.  The Lord will surely meet us at our point of need too, if we give him the chance.  We need to put ourselves in the right place at the right time.  God has promised we will find him when we seek him with all our heart! 

Second, consider the evidence.  We have in the Bible the accounts of reliable eye-witnesses.  In Christian bookshops you can find no end of books about countless believers who have proven God faithful down the ages.  Search the Internet for a film called “Transformations” to see the changes God brought in modern times to the societies of a Columbian city, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi, a valley in California and a rural town in Guatemala.  Believe the evidence you see.  God can do the same here!  Expect to see God at work.

[The Transformations films can be found here Transformations I and here  Transformations II.]

Third, start making the right choices now.  Jesus gave Thomas a command: “Stop doubting and believe”.  But it was his choice to believe.  Let's not allow our thinking to be characterised by unbelief.  Let's recognise we are not immune from the circumstances of life and not let circumstance rob us of faith.  Let's recognise that the enemy of our souls is blinding the minds of unbelievers and that he will still try to blind us if we let him.  Let's each one of us make Jesus truly our Lord and our God, like Thomas did.  Let's trust him, no matter what.  “Stop doubting and believe”. 

Epilogue

After the events in our passage, Thomas is next heard of in Acts joining constantly in prayer with the other apostles after the Ascension of Jesus, renewed and restored and active in the life and mission of the church.  Beyond that is legend.  Thomas went to India and founded a church that is still in evidence today. He laid down his life there for what he believed.  Thomas the Doubter proved full of faith in Jesus Christ, his Lord and his God.

What of God's purposes in Tynedale?  Are we involved yet?  Is unbelief in our way, or are we ready to grasp the vision, believe it and pray and work for its fulfilment?  Can God use people like us?  Yes he can!

Friday, April 3, 2015

What Happened To Jesus At The Cross?

Reading

Mark 15:6-39

Introduction

Our reading is a powerful account of what happened to Jesus Christ in the events surrounding his death.  Many films have also been made about the life of Jesus.  I was once in a service where an excerpt from one of them was used as a backdrop to a song about the victory of the cross.  I found it impossible to sing that rightly joyful song and at the same time watch images of my Lord and Saviour being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem and then nailed to a cross. 

I was too choked up to sing something I found completely incongruous with what I saw.  And though the visual imagery of that film was itself powerful, the film has not yet been made which truly depicts the events of that day.  If it were to be made it would be strongly censored, if not totally banned, for the portrayal of the mindless and gratuitous violence and degradation inflicted on Jesus.

Piecing together the descriptions from the four gospels, and allowing ourselves to take in the enormity of the events, we can reconstruct a truly awful sequence of events.

The Events

After a mockery of a trial, Jesus was blindfolded, spat upon, slapped, and struck with fists by the Sanhedrin guards; was mocked and ridiculed by Herod’s men; was flogged by the Romans so that his back was torn to shreds; had a crown of vicious thorns rammed on his head, and then was beaten about the head with a staff by Roman soldiers, who mocked him and paid false homage to him.

He was made to carry his own cross but was so weak by now that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for him.  The gospels seem to gloss over the shame and agony of crucifixion.  As Mark puts it, “And they crucified him.”  What an understatement!  In fact, Jesus was stripped completely naked and stretched out by three Roman soldiers while a fourth drove iron spikes through his wrists and ankles.

Once the cross was hauled aloft and the full weight of Jesus’ body hung from those spikes in the heat of the day, he was mocked by his countrymen, the soldiers divided up his clothes and cast lots for his undergarment.

Finally, six hours later, he died.  Later than evening, just to make sure he was really dead, a Roman soldier drove a spear through his side into his heart.  Blood and water flowed from the wound, probably blood cells and plasma which had separated in the chambers of his heart, indicating that he had been dead for a long time.  Jesus did not swoon on the cross, as some would have us believe.  He died!

In the crucifixion of Jesus, we could easily see the triumph of evil.  Jesus went about doing good and healing the sick, but now it’s all gone pear-shaped and his ministry has ended in disaster.

In reality, everything happened according to God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.  All that Jesus experienced was a deliberate and purposeful act of God, and Jesus knew that it was what he came to earth for.  We shall see evidence of that when we look at OT prophecy in a moment.

It is no small wonder that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Who would relish the prospect of what lay before Jesus.  But His Father’s will was that the cup should not pass from him.  Jesus had to drink the cup to its dregs.  But why did this have to happen?  What was the point?  Before he died, Jesus cried out, “IT IS FINISHED”.  Did he mean, “That’s it, I’m done for”?

The Reason for the Cross

I have just related the physical events of what happened to Jesus at the cross.  Shocking as these events are, I have not recounted them to shock you, or to stir your emotions, or to make you feel sympathy for Jesus.  But I do want you to understand the full measure of what it was necessary for Jesus to endure.

The horrible execution he underwent was really only the tip of the iceberg.  Beyond the physical, something much deeper was going on. Those final words of Jesus contain the most significant meaning that any words could ever convey.

As Christians, we know that mankind has a deep, deep problem, summed up in the word ‘sin’.  Sin is the transgression of God’s Law.  His Law shows us the way he wants us to live, the right way to live, but we have failed.  Sin has terrible consequences for us.  When we break his Law, we are subject to the curse of the Law and come under God’s judgement: that we are worthy of death.  Sin separates us from God and, unless something is done about it, that separation is forever.  The scriptures tell us about these things.

Is 59:1 “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.  But your iniquities have separated you from your God;  your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.

Gal 3:10 “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.

Ro 6:23 “The wages of sin is death.

If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at the cross.  If you want to know what God thinks of you, look at the cross.

Sin is a deeply serious thing, and we cannot do anything to save ourselves from its penalty.  But you are of inestimable worth to God.  Even so, there was only one way to save you, and Jesus willingly took that way for you.  Jesus Christ, God made man, the only one who could help us, went to the cross because of our sin and because of his love for us.

If we could save ourselves by our own efforts, do you think that God would allow his only Son, whom he loved, to endure the physical torment of crucifixion?  Jesus died for you so that you could know peace with God and live forever in his presence.

His death on the cross was not the end of a failed mission.  It was the triumphant culmination of God’s plan of salvation.  Jesus’ cry was not “I am finished.”  It was a declaration of success: “It is finished!”, or, “Mission accomplished!”

The Cost of Salvation

The scriptures tell what was happening at the cross because of our sin and because of his love for us.

2 Cor 5:21 “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Is 53:4-6 “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Is 53:8b “For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

Is 53:12b “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

1 Pet 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

2 Cor 5:19 “...God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.

Heb 2:9 “...he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Gal 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’

Col 2:13b-14 “[God] forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Ro 5:6-11 "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  … God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!

Ro 3:25 “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

In our reading from Mark’s gospel, we read that darkness fell from the 6th to the 9th hour.  From 12 noon until 3 pm the sun refused to shine.  Perhaps this was symbolic of what was happening to Jesus.  On the cross, the full horror of our sins fell on Jesus.  He took to himself the guilt of all our wrong acts, all our failures to act, everything that makes God angry with us.

At that point Jesus became so abhorrent, because of our sin, that God the Father turned away.  The unthinkable happened, far worse to Jesus than any of the physical pain: for the first time in all eternity there was a separation between God the Father and God the Son.

Can you feel the pain in his desperate words,  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He bore the full penalty of our sins. He felt the utter despair that should have been ours.  When he died there was an earthquake, symbolising for us the broken heart of God at the loss of his Son.

At the point of his death, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, showing us that the way into the presence of God was opened for all who trust in Jesus Christ and his saving work at the cross.

Yes, if you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at the cross.  If you want to know what God thinks of you, look at the cross.  See how much he loves you!  At the cross, God’s own love satisfied all the demands of his own justice.

The Response

I have set Christ and him crucified before you.  It is good to remind ourselves about these things.  It is easy to become familiar with them and forget the tremendous cost of our salvation.  The cross is something we should never forget.  The cross is something that we can rejoice in forever.  Yes, we can rejoice in something so terrible, so awesome as Christ’s sacrifice at the cross.

1 Cor 1:18 “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

What is your response to the message?

Perhaps you have never heard this message before.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit has been speaking to you about your sin.  Have you realised your desperate need of a Saviour?  Have you realised that Jesus Christ is that Saviour?  Will you turn from your sins that took him to the cross and give yourself to him completely?  Will you depend on Christ alone to save you?

Christian, have you realised again the consequences of those sins that you hold on to?  Do you want to turn away from them forever?  As we meet around the communion table, confess those things and repent of them; receive his mercy and forgiveness and walk in the freedom from sin that he died to win for you.

The bread we share at Communion reminds us of his body broken for us; the wine of his blood shed for us.  Let us marvel again at his love.  May our hearts burst with overflowing thankfulness and praise for his sacrifice for us.  And let us go out and live like the new creations he has made us to be.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Passion Portfolio, 2015

Over the years, I've written a series of poems rooted in Holy Week.  They are all on the Poetry section of my blog.  To help you find them (assuming you may be interested), here are links in the order of events rather than the order in which I wrote them.  Each link opens in a new window.

If I write any more, and I probably will, I'll think of a better way to keep this portfolio up to date.

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!