Dealing with sin

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 23-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at about 31 minutes).

1 John 1:1 – 2:2 provides a remarkable account of sin in the life of the Christian. John’s point of departure is that God is light, which comes up also in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. In 1 John 1:5, John affirms that because God is light, no darkness can exist in or around him at all. The consequence of this is that if we are walking a path of darkness – in other words, a path of sin – then we cannot be in God’s light, because darkness cannot exist in the light. (In the message I provide an explanation of how darkness disappears in light, and apply this to John’s account in 1:6.

However, the reality for Christians is that we do sin, as John says in v 8 (If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves) and v 10 (If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar). Clearly, in John’s mind and experience, sin is inevitably part of the life of the Christian. And merely claiming that we are without sin is to sin! We deceive not only ourselves, but also God. So the question is not whether you or I sin, but rather what sin(s) we are committing. What is important is to at least acknowledge that we sin, to own it, to be honest about it.

But even though John sees sin as inevitable for Christians, he does also say that we should not sin: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin” (2:1). There is an expectation that we ought to be sinning, since (as we saw before) sin cannot exist within God’s light. How then to we resolve this conundrum?

Jesus Christ is solution to this challenge. His incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension together create a solution for our inevitable sin. His blood purifies us from sin (1:7). If we confess our sin, God will (because God is faithful and justice) forgive us and purify us (1:9). And Jesus will serve as our advocate, speaking on our behalf with God the Father, atoning for our sins, and indeed the sin of all humanity (2:1-2). Everything we have focused on over the past weeks, since Ash Wednesday, has been laying the foundation for this understanding: the great salvation work of Christ on behalf of all of humankind.

In summary, John gives three steps for a Christian response to sin:

  1. Try hard not to sin! Avoid stepping out of the light into the darkness.
  2. When to you do (inevitably) sin, be honest about it. Don’t pretend like you’re not sinning. But also don’t beat yourself up about it. We are all sinners!
  3. When you sin, stepping into the shadow and the path of darkness, turn as quickly as you can back towards Christ, the Light and Life of the world. Say you’re sorry. Ask for his forgiveness and accept it. Go back to step 1 and repeat (many times).
Featured image from https://personal-injury-claims-scotland.co.uk/general/how-to-avoid-mistakes-when-making-a-personal-injury-claim/attachment/yellow-road-sign-saying-danger-wrong-way-turn-back/

Married to God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the video recording on YouTube. Or read the text summary that follows.

We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.

However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.

Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.

The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!

But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:

The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”

We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)

As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.

Featured image from: https://iglesiatijuana.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Marriage.jpg

A long story of God’s salvation

Click here to listen to the audio recording of today’s 17-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 25 minutes). Or read the short summary below.

Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.

I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:

  1. God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
    • Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
    • God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
    • The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
    • This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
  2. God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
    • Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
    • ‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
    • In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
    • However, now the covenant has conditions:
    • Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
    • Males must be circumcised.
    • Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
  3. God’s external law, which humanity must obey
    • Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
    • God now sets external laws by which we must abide
    • Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
    • Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
    • The solution of the Law alienates us from God
  4. Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
    • Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
    • But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
    • Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
    • But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
    • Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
    • This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
    • The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
  5. God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
    • Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
    • God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
    • This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
    • And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
  6. Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
    • Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
    • Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
    • We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
    • God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
    • We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
    • We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it

There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:

  1. God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
  2. God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
  3. Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
Featured image from https://davidjeremiah.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/an-assurance-of-salvation-verse-to-know-by-heart.jpg

A life of love

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.

This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.

The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.

Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.

Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)

In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.

What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).

We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.

Featured image from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/17240411047269719/

What kind of people are we?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message (best sound quality). Or watch the video on Facebook (the sermon starts at 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today, the central question I am asking is, What kind of people are we?

Or phrased differently, What kind of people ought we to be?

John the Baptist was the last in the line of First Testament prophets. He, like those who came before him, pointed the way to Messiah, the Christ, who appeared as Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John to us, telling that he came as a messenger in advance of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for the Lord.

John did this preparation by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was his clear message. And instead of pointing to himself or puffing himself up, he continually pointed to the one who was still to come, saying:

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7-8)

When John was a new-born, his father Zechariah said much the same about him in Luke 1:67-79. After eight verses about the coming Messiah, Zechariah finally gets to his own son, and in just four verses proclaims his mission:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

And all of this was prophesied hundreds of years before by Isaiah in chapter 40:1-5. where he says:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

All of these passages have this in common:

John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

John came, Jesus followed and John died. And then Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven.

We are now waiting for him to return. And while we wait:

We are to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

So, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, we need to consider who we are pointing to and what message we are proclaiming through our actions and words. In 2 Peter 3:11, Peter asks this penetrating question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He asks this in the context of second coming of Christ Jesus. Given that he is coming back soon,

What kind of people ought we to be?

We at my parish, St Stephens in Lyttelton, South Africa, are currently conducting a survey among our parishioners about what kind of church we are and what kind of church we aspire to be. One of the questions we asked was, “What qualities, values or characteristics you would like St Stephen’s to embody?” We’re still busy with the survey, but here is what we’ve learned so far:

  • God focus:
    • Focus on God, honour God’s commandments, serve God
    • Prayer, spirituality, faith, hope, wisdom
  • Relational focus:
    • Love, care, kindness, compassion, tolerance
    • Friendliness, companionship, good relationships
    • Sense of community, collaboration
    • Honesty, authenticity
    • Equality for all
    • Family values

These qualities, values or characteristics align well with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

A church that embodied these kinds of values and qualities would surely be a church people would want to attend, and would surely help to prepare the way for the Lord’s return, and would surely be pleasing to God.

Let us be this kind of church!

Featured image: St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti

Church discipline

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below or read the text summary that follows.

Matthew 18:15-20 speaks about church discipline. Jesus provides us with both principles for church discipline and some practical steps that can be followed.

Principles

This specific passage is located within the larger narrative of Matthew chapter 18:

  1. Jesus starts by advocating for humility; a warning particularly to those who think they are important people in the church, including church leaders (Matthew 18:1-5).
  2. Jesus says we should be considerate of our sisters and brothers, not causing people to stumble while we stand on our rights (Matthew 18:6-13).
  3. Jesus tells the parable about the lost sheep – the shepherd leaves (and even risks) the 99, while he goes in search of the one (Matthew 18:10-14).
  4. Then we have today’s passage on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
  5. Immediately after that, we have Peter asking how many times he should forgive a sister or brother who sins against him. Seven times? (which to Peter probably felt very generous!) But Jesus, says, no! 70 times 7. And goes on to the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much (as we all are forgiven very much by God) but was unwilling to forgive another person a little (Matthew 18:21-35).

In combination, this chapter strongly emphasizes relationships of love. Love that is humble and little, love that is considerate, love that see the individual as of inestimable value, love that forgives and forgives, love that recognized how we have been blessed and seeks to pass it on.

This is the context within which Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ words about church discipline.

While we are instructed to challenge or confront sin – Jesus says, “Go! And point out their fault” – nevertheless, the way in which we do it, our purpose, our understanding of ourselves in this challenging role and our understanding the person being confronted, are all to be shaped by the deep love, consideration, valuing and forgiving that Jesus has presented to us in this chapter.

Practice

Perhaps the first thing to recognize in practice is that we are all sinners, so this is a case of one sinner confronting another sinner. This is not a situation of the righteous confronting the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The steps are really quite sensible:

  1. Go directly to the person whose sin you have become aware of and point it out to them. Have a conversation with them, according to the principles set out above. And hopefully they will be able to hear you and the prompting of Holy Spirit and repent. (In the sermon, I share an example where I was the one being confronted regarding my own sin against another person in the church.
  2. But if they don’t listen, go again with another one or two people, and try again. These other people are witnesses and may see that actually you are in the wrong in your assessment of the situation. They provide a third perspective.
  3. But if the person still does not listen, then bring it to ‘the church’, by which Matthew probably mean the whole church, though perhaps today it would be better to bring it to the church leaders or elders. This is now a more formal and confrontational situation
  4. But if the person still does not listen, then “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.

This final step appears to suggest excommunication or ‘shunning’, though Jesus does not make explicit what he means. There certainly are other passages in the Second Testament that make provision for casting someone out of the church community. However, when we look at how Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors, we see that he reaches out to them, engages them, works to reconcile them and save them:

  • The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 was a pagan. Jesus engaged with her when she approached him, proclaimed her faith to be incredible, and healed her daughter from demon possession.
  • Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 was a tax collector. Jesus initiated dialogue with him, invited himself to his house to share a meal with him, and concludes by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Regarding both pagans and tax collectors, we Jesus working to reconcile, restore, include, forgive, save. Combining these examples of Jesus’ actual behaviour with pagans and tax collectors, and in light of the words just before this passage – “your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish” (Mat 18:14) – and the words just after it – “[forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22) – we should conclude that the fourth step in Jesus’ practice guidelines is not about excommunication, but rather about persistent attempts to challenge and restore.

Paul summarises this very neatly in Galatians 6:1:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit [meaning we need check our own faith and conduct before we step in to confront someone else] should restore that person [not dump on them, not humiliate or belittle them, not shame them, not cast them out] gently [with kindness, consideration, sensitivity and above all, authentic love]. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted [be humble, watch out for pride, arrogance of complacency, because you might easily be the one caught in a sin next week].

Forgiveness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Today we are reading from Matthew 18, which has a series of parables and teachings about the life of the church, culminating in a teaching on forgiveness. The central verse is, perhaps, v22, where, in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or 70 time 7 times).

The whole chapter speaks about relationships between us and our brothers and sisters in the church:

  • First Jesus  reminds us that greatness is relative, and that if we want to be great, we need to be like little children. (Mat 18:1-5)
  • He then cautions us to avoid doing anything that might cause others (“little ones”) to stumble. Indeed, he goes as far to say that we should mutilate ourselves, rather than cause someone to stumble. (Mat 18:6-9)
  • Then we get the parable of the wandering sheep. A shepherd as 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek out the one. Jesus emphasises the great joy in heaven resulting from the rescue of the one, and refers to them again as ‘little ones’. This passage speaks about love seeking – God is always seeking us out, even just the one, even just a ‘little one’. God is seeking – we need to be seeking. (Mat 18:10-14)
  • Then we have a teaching about how to handle sin in the church – when our sister or brother sins. Jesus presents a nuanced series of challenges – first you go on your own, then you take one or two people with you (again quietly and personally), then you inform the church (presumably the leadership) and they go (again quietly and personally) to challenge the person, and finally, says Jesus, we “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. We might think Jesus means to cast them out, to excommunicate them. But Jesus’ encounters with pagan Romans (Luke 7:1-10) and tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) are to engage with them, not to cast them out. Love challenges and confronts, but in a way that embraces rather than rejects. (Mat 18:15-20)
  • Finally, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant, where a servant owes his king a lot of money, but cannot pay it back. He begs for mercy and the kind cancels his debt. The servant meets someone who owes him a few bucks, demands payment and when he cannot pay, he casts him into jail. The king is outraged at his lack of mercy, given that he had cancelled the far larger debt of the servant, and has him cast into jail. Love forgives, and is willing to forgive greatly and repeatedly. (Mat 18:21-35)
  • The passage ends with a warning, “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to every single one of you who does not forgive your brother or sister, and forgive from the bottom of your heart” (v35). Through these very strong and threatening words, Jesus is conveying the central importance of forgiveness. We have been forgiven much; should we not also forgive others?

Jesus teaching in this chapter presents a picture of a health church and of healthy human relationships – we do not look down on anyone; we are considerate of others and avoid causing them harm; we value the group but we also value the individual, even seemingly unimportant individuals; we challenge wrongdoing, but in a way that embraces and restores; and we forgive those who do wrong against us, again and again, in the same way that God forgives us, again and again. If we could do all this – in the power of Holy Spirit – what a church we would have!

2020.08.13_Forgiveness-scaled-e1582229617204

Featured image from https://www.practicalrecovery.com/prblog/how-to-forgive/