Saturday, July 8, 2017

What! what do you mean no grumbling? (Philippians 2:12-18)

Paul would probably never have seen the white star Alpha Centauri or its blue white companion Beta Centauri. It’s not because they are dim little stars hard to see without a telescope in fact they are amongst the brightest stars in our night sky. Amongst the first to appear in the falling dusk and the last to fade with the coming of dawn.  Rather Paul lived his life in the northern hemisphere and they are a feature in our southern sky. We know these two stars as the pointers.

We value them because they point towards the southern Cross, the constellation that is at the heart of our identity as people of the southern hemisphere and as a nation. You can always find the southern cross by looking for those two bright stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri

I think Paul would have loved these stars because they exemplify the image he uses of God’s people living in unity, being like stars shining in the dark sky. Not only do Alpha Centauri and beta Centauri stand out as beacons of light, they point us to the cross. Like our unity, our treating each other with the mind of Christ, our doing everything without grumbling or arguing does as well. 

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. It’s a thank you letter for the support they had sent him while he is in prison. But more than that it is Paul encouraging the church to stand firm in their faith. To stand firm as they face storms of persecution from without and trouble within. But its more than that Paul encourages them to know the fullness of Joy that is in the Christ regardless of circumstance. While it is a letter written to them there and then it speaks equally to us here and now as we stand firm facing difficulties within and from outside the church on our joyous journey following Jesus.

Again the reading we had from Philippians this morning starts with the word ‘therefore’ it links us back to what Paul had been saying to the Church. He had been speaking of the importance of Christian unity. He had said it was central to our ability to stand firm against persecution and pressure from outside. Then he had turned to speak of achieving Christian unity within the Church by treating one another with the mind of Christ, looking at each other through the cross: with a servant heart and sacrificial love, in a healthy way putting other peoples needs above our own. Now Paul turns to finish talking about unity with some very practical advice that we should do everything without grumbling or arguing. He prefaces that with some directives in verse 12-13 and follows it up with incentives to do it in verse 16-18. 

I want to focus on without grumbling and arguing. But before we do that lets look at the directives Paul gives and then the incentives.

Ok firstly the directives…Paul tells them they should be obedient just as they had been when he was with them, and they should work out their salvation in fear and trembling. These raise questions for us.

The first is who is Paul saying the church should obey. The inference is that it is Paul who was with them but is now absent. But Paul is not saying they should obey him because of his position or status in the Church. Paul's introduced himself in this letter not as the boos but as a servant of Christ. This isn’t a power trip, because that would fly in the face of all Paul was telling the church at Philippi. rather Paul is asking them to obey the gospel he has taught
them. As he had spoken of his affection for the church at Philippi it was because they had responded so quickly and fully to the Gospel, his joy in chains and with opposition in the church was that the gospel was being proclaimed, and the gospel was the center of certainty in his uncertain future. Here his directions to the church are to continue living it out. But that cannot be divorced from Paul himself, he is aware that not only had he proclaimed the gospel to them, as they see Paul living it out he is the example to them of the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 4: 16 Paul had told “his readers to imitate him and therefore be imitators of Christ.”  People see Christ and know what Christ was like in the way we act and react to others around us. It is a real challenge to Christian leaders and to all of us. People know the love of God because they see it in us. God’s forgiveness because we forgive. Joy because we rejoice.

The second question that Paul’s directives raises is about salvation by grace alone. Paul says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. However in the next verse (v4) he says God works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his Good purposes. These verses have got caught up in the in’s and outs of large theological debates about the nature of our salvation. Is it the work of God or is it something we have to work for?  The answer I think is to be found in the ins and outs of it. It is God’s work in us that makes us justified before God, that brings the forgiveness of sins that reconciles us with God, makes us God’s children and his people, God works in us to bring that fulfillment. How we work that out in our lives is what we must do with fear and trembling.

 That fear and trembling is not being afraid of God, that we are not going to live up to God’s standards that we are going to be written off and dismissed. Rather it’s because we have been given something so precious, the right to be God’s sons and daughters, we have been given something so amazing, new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwelling us, that we are very careful in how we work it out in our lives. A good example was at the parade for the America’s cup on Thursday the guy from team New Zealand who was responsible for the old mug was the only one wearing gloves, he had to work very hard to keep it safe. Doing everything without grumbling and arguing is like that.

Then quickly Paul’s incentives for doing it. In verse 16 Paul tells them that at the day of the Lord he will be able to boast and rejoice because they have kept God’s word. They are the evidence that he has not laboured in vain. Paul you have to remember had the possibility of immanent death hanging over his head and he is looking back and asking questions about was it all worthwhile. The answer for him is if these people show God’s love for one another and live in a manner worthy of the Gospel yes it is. Not only that but his readers then and there and down through he ages will be able to join in the rejoicing of knowing that Joy as well. We will hear well done good and faithful servant enter the rest I have prepared for you. The Americas cup has been in the news this week, because we won it again. It’s interesting listening to the team members speak, they’ve won the prize through innovation, hard work and most of all team work… team work… that is the thing that has got them through, that allowed them to risk and make what grant Dalton called wild west decisions… that is what makes their joy at the end more complete.

Ok let’s move on to look at grumbling and arguing. I was speaking to a college during the week about what I was preaching on this Sunday and he said “oh, I try not to read those parts of the bible”, but my wife keeps reminding of them”. It is difficult to talk about do everything without grumbling or arguing…  I’m going to take a bit of a risk here and start with a piece of humour built around one of the areas in modern churches where there is often conflict resulting in grumbling and arguments… Worship styles…

This is from Tom Kreouter’s book ‘Guiding your Church through Worship Transitions’ and it’s a piece called ‘The Perfect Worship Service’, supposedly written by a church leadership team to their congregation…

“After listening carefully over the past several years, we believe we have finally determined what those who attend our church really want in music. Following are items that come up most frequently whenever the topic is discussed.

·         More fast songs in the opening praise time and more slow songs in the opening praise time.

·         More of those wonderful, lovely old hymns and less of those stupid, dead old hymns.

·         A longer and shorter time of praise at the beginning of the service, and a longer and shorter time at the end.

·         Songs to flow quickly into each other and long periods of time between songs for reflection.

·         More repetition of songs so they can be learned and meditated upon while singing, and less repetition of songs because it gets boring singing the same thing over and over.

·         More of those lovely arrangements with extra instruments and less of those showy arrangements with all those instruments.

·         To sing good old songs more often and to stop singing those same old songs.

·         Songs to be sung in higher and lower keys.

·         The band to play in the middle of the platform where they can be seen, back behind the plants where they won’t be a distraction, louder, softer, faster, slower more often and not at all.

In the end I think it is one of the challenges to our unity that comes from being the church in a time when we have experienced one of the fastest and most significant cultural changes the world has ever seen… a small Part of what Leonard Sweet calls being ‘the church in the perfect storm’.

When Paul says do everything without grumbling and arguments, he is not saying that there will not be conflicts and difficulties and disagreements, that is part of the human condition. Grumbling and arguments in the Greek have more of a sense of things being done out of selfish ambition. The words warped and crooked generation echo the words at the end of the book of Deuteronomy about Israel’s journey from Egypt through the wilderness. God saved them about bought them out of Egypt to be his people. Note that was God’s saving activity, there response was not continued thanksgiving and honour to God but to continue grumbling about God’s provision, God’s leader, instead of living as god would want them to they moved forward with that eye over their shoulder, we want to go back to where we were, this way seems harder. Paul is saying that because of Christ we have been made into God’s new people and we are to live different than that.  We grumble and argue because we want it our way not God’s way. We want to be served but the Christian life calls us to serve, we want to be first, but Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first, we want it our way, our likes, our tastes our ideas, but we are a community who together discerns God’s way forward for us.

It says somethings about how we handle conflict. In the Alpha marriage Course they recommend that conflicts and points of tension be dealt with sitting together on the couch with the issue out in the open on the table in front of the couple not on the couch between them. Grumbling normally means the problem is not out in the open to be dealt with. When we deal with a conflict as a church we have it out in front of us and we are all together on the pews to deal with it. Our primary commitment is to the fact that we are one in Christ, we have been won by Christ, Christian ethics come out of our theology. We are determined to preserve that costly unity. We are going to continue loving each other with that problem and conflict, through its resolution and afterwards as well., even if we can’t get it sorted and we have to trust it over to God. Sometimes that takes a lot of time, some outside help.

One of the best chapters I read when I was at knox was in a book I can’t remember the tile of by an author I can’t remember. But the chapter was called learning to fight like Christians.  In it the author said in all conflict there are rules of engagement, like the Geneva convention in wars, in boxing there are rules, even in UFC, which some people have likened to legalised prison violence there are rules, in rugby there are rules. So it when Christians deal with conflict. In that chapter he went through some of those which I found useful. Listen to the other side and different views. Respect what is said. Don’t speak over and shout down, start by showing enough love to be able to reflect the other persons opinion and view point and feelings before you go on. Remember the common ground, the cross and common goal, unity. The flip side of Paul talking of the fullness of joy at he day of the lord is  you know if we can’t get along here and now, what does that say about eternity.

Let me just finish by saying that sadly the Churches witness is dimmer than it should be. On a big scale we find ourselves divided into denominations and different groupings. Yes there are some important theological issues at stake, a lot of it is also history and geography.  The world is waiting to see us truly love one another. The church is an amazing global family, made up of some many people from diverse cultures, generations, socio-economic backgrounds and the bright shining light for the world is if in Christ we can work out not how to simply live with tolerance but genuine love for each other. On a local level we are a microcosm of that and we seem to be good at rubbing each other up the wrong way, we are good at grumbling and arguing.  Paul's call is that we work at truly loving each other, forgiving each other and being unified, and reconciled you know what that is the beacon of light for a broken and hurting world that will point them to the power of the Cross. That is at the heart of  our witness and our joy.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

the Sovereign Providence of God over house and city, field and family (Psalm 127)

Housing, Security, work and family… These are the areas of human concern and endeavour that Psalm 127 addresses. AS Leslie Allen says the psalm tells us that “God is the immanent Lord of the home, the city, the field and the family."

These areas have changed since the time this psalm was written.  Housing concerns are more about affordability than simply construction, we have a whole generation wondering if they will ever be able to own a house amidst sky rocketing property values.   Security; is not simply a matter of an armed guard on the city wall staring at the horizon or into the dark night, but of Policemen, customs agents and those people in intelligence who stare at the new digital horizon and the dark recesses of the Internet. Work, for most is not hands on toiling to grow the food we eat, but to make ends meet, in our increasingly complex and costly society. Family; Psalm 127 reflects a male dominated agrarian society where to have many sons was a real blessing, they would work hard, carry on one’s legacy and were able to speak in the city gates to defend land rights and family honour, we are happy to change our reading to children and reflect the great joy and equal value of daughters, and in our changing society family sizes are shrinking and people choosing to be single or couples choosing to not have kids are a growing phenomenon. Housing, security, work and family are still central areas of human concern and Psalm 127 is as relevant to us today as it was to its original readers.

Psalm 127 is unusual in its title it is said to be of Solomon, not of David. It is wisdom literature not simply prayer and praise. EM Blaicklock says it is written from the perspective of a person mature in years looking back at the reality of life, with the possibility of failure and success.

 It is what is called a proverbial psalm. It brings two proverbs together to help us reflect on God and life. The first is in verses 1-2 and reflects on home, community and work, the second in verse 3-5 focuses on family.

Both are what are called conditional proverbs, there outcome is conditional on the same thing. The first deals with the curse of human futility, all our endeavours and achievements amount to nothing unless they are in the will of LORD.  The second deals with the blessing of human fertility, which is seen as a result of the will of God and the blessing of God.

 One commentator suggested this Psalm was read to new fathers as it balanced the joys of having children with the challenge of having children. But we use this psalm basically in two ways. The first proverb is most often used,  by Christians, after we have made decisions and worked out our plan of action and we stop to ask God’s blessing because unless the LORD is on board then it is all in vain. The second is used most often in discussions on family values. Our focus can be the success of our plan or our family and we can miss that the focus of the Psalm is on the LORD.

This is a psalm of ascent, a psalm used as pilgrims come to Jerusalem for one of the three great festivals of the Jewish Faith. It is used as the people come to the temple to worship, they were said to recite one of the fourteen psalms of ascent on each of the fourteen steps up to the temple to prepare themselves to worship God. In this psalm they stop and realise the providence and the sovereignty of God in all areas of life.

It humbles us, we realise that for all our endeavours, our cleverness, our inventiveness, our planning, our having a family that it is all dependant on God. God is sovereign and it is his providence that enables our homes our cities, community and work to thrive and prosper. In the fickleness of history, the rise and fall of empire, economy and fortunes, we are dependant not on our own abilities but on God’s grace.

It causes us to give thanks, to see what God has done for us. While the blessing of God is seen in families and in particular sons, it does not stop the widow or the orphan or childless couple from joining their thanks to this. God did not chose to bless them like this and their lives have been hard because if it they can give thanks that God is also the God who cares for the widow and the orphan. They can give thanks and have hope because they two live their lives out with the sovereign providence of God.

The third thing this Psalm invites us to do is to trust in God. To realise that the whole of our lives are in God’s hands. In the sermon of on the mount Jesus invites us not to be anxious and worry about tomorrow, not to loose sleep over our needs because God knows our needs even before we ask So we should put first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to us. It is not that we focus on our work but on good works that glorify and honour God. The Psalm does not discourage human effort and work or success and prosperity, neither does it give a formula for success but invites us to stretch out our hands in trust and submission and ascribe praise to God for the success we do enjoy.

At the centre of this psalm is a verse about the Lord giving sleep to those he loves. It provides a positive ending to the proverb that has been about the futility of toiling outside of God’s will.  I’m sure if you’ve been parents it is a great promise when you turn to think of family,  the sleeplessness and concerns that never seem to go away when it comes to families even though they are a blessing from God. I had a friend in Rotorua whose business partner had six daughters and he said it was only the first thirty years that were sleepless. We can trust in God’s sovereignty and God’s providence. In Jesus Christ we have the greatest example of that, God’s love and grace shown to us, that in Jesus life death and resurrection we can have the central concern of life, relationship with God put right and our sins forgiven. We know his love and we can trust that his plans for us are for good not for harm, and rest in that on our pilgrim journey.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Have the Mind of Christ: Humble Sacrificial Service (Philippians 2:1-11)

I love this old stone structure out on the water’s edge in Ambury Farm Park. It looks like it belongs at some desolate spot on the coast of Ireland or Scotland rather than just over there at the end of Mangere. I think it must have originally been a sheep pen or barn, but now it serves as a shelter for the public. The supports for the roof at each end of the structure form a cross, so when you are in the sheep pen and looking out, you look at the world through a cross…

…You can look down the Manukau towards the dark distant hills of the Awhitu peninsula on the southern side and Puponga point and the Waitakere’s to the north. …

…You can turn around and look back across the fields and suburban houses to Mount Mangere. Either way you see it all through a cross of wood. In the sheep pen it frames how you view and comprehend the world around you.

…It is a great metaphor for what Paul tells the Church at Philippi in our reading this morning. That the key to being a united body, is to have the mind of Christ, who was willing to empty himself and become a servant obedient unto death even death on a cross. It is like Paul is saying that in the sheep pen we call the church, we should look at each other through the cross of Christ.

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he has written to give thanks for the Church’s support for him while he is in Prison. He takes the opportunity to encourage and instruct the church as they face similar persecution and trouble. He tells them to stand firm, and live a life worthy of the gospel. It’s not just encouragement to hang tough in the face of life’s storms; to simply survive with gritted teeth and clenched fists. Paul uses the word joy sixteen times in his letter and encourages the church to know the fullness of joy that the Christian faith offers, regardless of the circumstances.  Paul’s words to the church then and there are equally helpful for us here and now as we stand firm on our own joyous journey following Jesus.

The passage we had read to us today starts with the word therefore which connects it to what has gone before. We need to look at that to give us context.  Paul had shared his situation with the Philippians that he was facing persecution from outside the church, he was in prison in Rome, and he was also facing opposition from those in the church. But in both these situations he could give thanks because while he was in chains the gospel was unchained and was being fruitfully proclaimed and while his future seemed uncertain, as it was in the hands of the roman Emperor, in reality it was certain, weather he lived or died, his future was in the hand’s of Christ.

As we looked as last week, Paul then turned to tell the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, to be good citizens of the Kingdom of God, as they faced the same kind of persecution and trouble Paul did.  in the face of persecution, they were to stand firm in unity, strive together without fear for the gospel. Now in the reading from this morning he turns to tell them about how to live a life worthy of the gospel as they face internal troubles. He does it three ways, firstly he tells them that our unity is an outcome of God’s salvation work. Then he tells them that unity needs human effort to be work out. Finally, he pulls those two things together in calling Jesus followers to have the mind of Christ, which he reveals in a wonderfully deep, rich  poem, or song about Jesus incarnation and death and his exaltation by God to the highest place of honour and praise.

Firstly, Paul tells us that Christian unity is the work of the triune God. The whole of the God head has been at work in for our salvation and bringing us together. We have been united in Christ through his life, death and resurrection.  It is because of that that we are God’s Children, and have been made brothers and sisters. This is the outworking of God the Father’s great love for us. God has poured out his Holy Spirit on all believers, we share the same Holy Spirit. The reality of that, the encouragement, comfort tenderness and compassion that results from that should be seen in our love for one another. Christian love and unity is so important because it shows the reality of the gospel. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35

‘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.’

It makes sense that the outworking of God’s love for us should be our love not only for God but also for one another. It makes sense that the godhead working in unison, in perfect unity should result in our unity.

Paul gives us a glimpse into his mind as a mature disciple of Christ when he says that to see such a unity be worked out in the church would make his joy complete. His heart and desires are aligned with God’s heart and God’s desire. He wants the church to be like-minded, to see unity as such an important central focus, have the same love, the love God has for us, that we would be of the same spirit and mind, that our soul and our thoughts might be attuned to that unity.

Now we shouldn’t mix unity with uniformity, when Paul says that we should be of one mind and like minded he is not saying we all should think alike, like the same things, be bland and monotonous because we are the same. We are all individuals made unique one off’s, we all have our own cultures and traditions, tastes and opinions, skills and abilities, likes and dislikes, faults and foibles…  and that individuality is a gift from God. It is more that we are like an orchestra, we bring our different voices and tones and ways of making noise and music, our vibrating strings or skins, or reads and mouth pieces in so many different configurations together to make the music of the gospel in unison and harmony.  Like with a orchestra that takes great human effort.

So Paul turns to give the church some very practical advice on what that means in terms of the human effort required to make unity work. Paul says “We should not do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in Humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In first century culture status was very important and hospitality and preference to others were given to receive social advancement in return, and Paul says this is not the way Christians interact. Paul himself had given them an example of not out of selfish ambition when in the previous chapter he shared his response of people whose motive for preaching the gospel had been out of some jealousy and dislike for Paul. Paul's response was to give praise and thanks that the gospel was being proclaimed, he wasn’t concerned about their agenda or seeking to defend his status as an Apostle rather could rejoice that the gospel was the important thing.

When Paul says in humility put others interests before our own. And this is possibly best understood If we go back to our orchestra illustration it means that each member of the orchestra is willing to not play or be so prominent so that other members can bring their contribution. The violin players willing to play soft or not at all so the horn section can play its part, or the flutes.

 I am aware that for some people, putting other before ourselves comes from feelings of low self-worth or phycological drivers like wanting to be liked all the time or needed. Equally that can be a block for developing Christian Unity, as it can easily become unchristian trampling upon.  Humility is knowing who we are and our true value and not then demanding our own rights and status but being willing to put others first. In fact the example given in this passage of humility is Jesus himself.  That leads us to how Paul brings this all together by saying when it come to the way we relate to each other we are to have the mind of Christ.

‘The story of the cross” says Alec Motyer, ‘is told in all the four gospels. The meaning of the cross is the preoccupying theme of the epistles.” This passage in Philippians is the most studied and discussed in the whole book because of the deep Christology in the wonderful poem or hymn that Paul shares to expound the mind of Christ. It gives us the mindset of the crucified one. We don’t have time in this sermon to delve in to those depth and explore them fully, rather we want to look at how they apply to how we should think and act towards each other.

In a recent interview Prince Harry talked of why he enjoyed his time in the army. He said suddenly instead of being Prince Harry, with all the pomp and ceremony that went along with it, he was just plain old Harry. He laid aside all that went with royalty so he could serve. In fact now he is more comfortable with being royalty because he can use it for the good of others in his charity work. Rather than time in the army Paul focuses on Jesus incarnation and crucifixion as emptying and serving.   In verse 6 Paul tells us that Jesus was in very nature God, but did not consider that equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather in verse 7 it tells us he emptied himself of that and took on the form of a servant being made in human likeness. It is the incarnation, but it is the attitude of being willing to lay aside status and position, prestige and personal comfort and safety, to come alongside and be with and part of. More than that to serve.

Paul tells us Jesus took on the role of a servant and was obedient even unto death, death on a cross. It was a total commitment of obedience to God and an all-in commitment for the very good of others. That is the attitude needed for Christian unity. At the heart, it is sacrificial love.

The story does not end at the cross Paul goes on to talk of Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven and his exaltation to the right hand of the father, and a coming time when all will proclaim Jesus as Lord and every knee will bow. That lifting up that exhorting to a high place that is in God’s hands and God’s timing, it’s not ours to impose or demand.

In other parts of the New Testament we see this attitude worked out in real life situations. For example  in Corinthians the services used to start with a meal and the rich people would sit down to eat and worship and those who were servant couldn’t get there till they had finished their days work, they often missed out on the fellowship and the food. In James, we see people of power and prestige being offered the best seats while the poor are told to stand at the back. This may have seemed right in first century society, but in the church we were to change and address those  situations with the mind of Christ…

Christian unity is the work of the triune God, father son and Holy Spirit, but to for that unity to work it needs human effort, that in our relationships with each other we have the mind of Christ, like with that wonderful old worldly structure, that sheep pen shelter at Ambury farm park. We look at each other through the cross. That holds us together, that provides the strength to make the sheep pen a shelter in the storms of life, that is what it means together to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, because it is a life that reflects the mind of Christ himself.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

God's Great Love... a prayer of thanks giving and confession

once again just a simply prayer for our church service this week. 

What great love you have for us God,

We are fearfully and wonderful made, each unique one off’s

You know us so well, you saw us in our mother’s wombs

While some of us might want to have words with you about it

The psalmist tells us you even know the number of hairs on our head

You know our comings in and going out, our times are in your hands

You know our needs even before we ask you

And you see the deep hidden things at the very core of us,

Both the good and prise worthy and the pains and wounds of our heart

What great love you have for us

What great love you have shown us

We had gone our own way and turned our backs

Yet you sent your son to make a way for us to come back to you

Jesus emptied himself and became one of us, a servant

Preached and proclaimed Good news to the poor

Healed the sick and set the captives free,

Gave sight to the blind, both physical and spiritual

He willing gave up his life for the forgiveness of our sins,

Being betrayed and falsely accused, he dies on the cross

But you raised him to life again and he is seated at your right hand

What great love you have shown us

What great love we experience from you

In Christ’s death and resurrection, we are forgive and have new life,

We know your abiding presence because you have sent your Holy Spirit

That fulness of life is eternal because it is lived in you, eternal God

We were distant and estranged, you called us together as your people

Brothers and sister in Christ, with those next to us and round the world

You provide our needs through the wonder of your creation

You provide for our needs in answering our prayers

We find meaning and purpose in serving you by loving others

What great love we experience from you

Your faithful love is new every morning

So today we come and ask your forgiveness

We have done things that you have said we should not

We have left undone the good you have told us to do

We acknowledge that we have sinned forgive us Lord we pray

Because you are faithful we know we are forgiven and made new

Today we ask for a fresh filling of your spirit

Today we ask that you may help us to love as Christ loved

Today we say glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Your faithful love is new every morning

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Worthy of the Gospel: Standing Firm and Striving together (Philippians 2:1-11)

I remember one summer night when I was about twenty and living in west Auckland I went out to Piha with a group of friends. It was a very wild west coast kind of instead of swimming or surfing we explored the rocks to the south of the beach. One of the guys who was with us ran along the rock ledge just above the waterline when a wave… a huge wave… came and broke over the top of him…. Boom. We thought we’d lost him that he’d be swept away, gone… But as the water drained away there was our mate hanging on to the rocks, a bit bruised and battered but alive.

Now being young, we decided that looked like fun and we’d give it a go. So we found a place just a bit further up the rocks and wedged ourselves in and let the spray from the waves break over us. Now and again a big set would come in and threaten to break our grip on the rocks. Looking back It was kind of dangerous and stupid but it was also exciting and exhilarating, and one of those male bonding things. We held fast together against the wind and the waves.

In the passage we had read to us today Paul turns from sharing his own experience with dealing with suffering and opposition to encourage the church to live a life worthy of the gospel and stand firm together in the struggles that they are facing, the same struggles that Paul had faced at Philippi and was facing now, opposition and persecution. What reminded me of that night out at Piha is a comment from New Testament scholar Frank Thielman, he says that Paul is not talking about suffering in general or standing firm for our own personal agenda but rather he is writing to "encourage a small group of people who stood as an Island of commitment to the gospel amidst a raging sea of pagan antagonism." And what Paul says is as encouraging to us today as it was to his first hearers in Philippi.

Over the winter months we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter where he thanks the church for their support and prayers and encourages them to stand firm in the faith. It a letter in which Paul uses the word joy sixteen times he encourages the church not only to stand firm but to rejoice in what Christ has done, is doing and will do for and through them. That encouragement is not only for his original readers but for us as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.

The passage we had read out to us today starts “whatever happens” and it links us back to what Paul had said previously. He had started his letter with formal introductions and thanksgiving and prayers for the church at Philippi, then he had told them about what was happening to him. That he was in prison in Rome awaiting his case to be heard by the emperor. He does not know whether he will live or die . He can rejoice however because even though he is in chains the gospel is unchained and people are hearing of Jesus Christ, and whatever happens to him his future is certain, it is with Christ. Now he turns to the church at Philippi and addresses them in their situation. It is part of Paul’s ministry, he continues to live, so he continues to build up the church.

Paul starts by telling them whatever happens to me, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. This imperative acts as a subject heading for the rest of the letter. Paul is going to expound ways in which the church at Philippi can live in that manner. The Greek word that we translate ‘conduct yourselves’, is only used two times in the New Testament, here and in Acts 23:1. It has a political context of living as a citizen, behave like a good citizen, in Acts when Paul uses it is translated Duty, Paul says he has fulfilled his duty to God. Philippi was a Roman colony, which meant that its inhabitants were citizens of Rome by right. Just as Dunedin was designed to be the Edinburgh of the south, Philippi was designed to be a little bit of Rome on the shores of the Agean. It’s people were to live as citizens of Rome, keeping the roman law and order and exemplifying Roman culture. In telling the Church to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel, Paul is telling them they are to live their lives not as a bit of Rome far away from home, but as citizens of heaven, people of the Kingdom of God, to live out God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We’ve got the British and Irish lion’s tour in New Zealand. The first test was last night, when you see the stadiums you can tell who are citizens of Britain and Ireland down here to support the Lion’s they are in red and chanting “Lions, Lions” and you can tell the All Black’s fan’s because they are dressed in black and chanting ‘Tutiramai nga iwi’ or Black, black…

But it is not clothing or chanting that is going to distinguish the church as Citizen’s of the kingdom of God, it is the way in which they live. Paul goes on to tell the church at Philippi to stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel. The conduct that Paul is looking for is their unity and love for one another.

It’s a unity of one spirit, now there are different interpretations of this, Paul is a bit ambiguous when he says that. It can mean that the church shares a sense of shared comradery and belonging together, a very human emotion or understanding of being together. It could also be talking of being one in the one Spirit, the Holy Spirit. We are united and stand firm together because we share the same promised Holy Spirit. I think it is not a matter of either and here, but of both and, We do belong to each other we have that spirit of comradery because we do share the same Spirit, the Holy Spirit given to everyone who believes. I might not have much in common with you and you may not have much in common with me, but what makes us united is that we have both, all been bought to know God through Jesus Christ and the same Spirit lives within lives within me. The Irish and welsh and English and Scotts don’t always get on together, but on the lion’s tour they see each other and instantly there is a sense of being one as Lion’s supporters.

But that unity is not just on that emotional and theological level, Paul says it’s on a practical level as well striving together as one for the faith in the gospel. The church is not just a place where in Christ we all belong, it is a place where we all have a part to play as well. Alec Motyer says the church has a no passenger policy. We all do our part for the furthering of the gospel. It’s a hands on thing. Athenagora ( (illustration found in Frank Thielman's commentary) was a second century apologist for the Christian faith, he defended Christianity in the reign of two roman emperors; Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Commodus. They were very keen on Philosophy and saw Christians as uneducated and backward one of Athenagora’s answered that by saying

“with us on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches but evidence kind deeds; when struck they do not strike back when robbed they do not sue, to those who ask they give, and they love their neighbour as themselves.”

You may have heard that saying ‘Share the gospel, and if you have to use words’ Well it’s not biblical. In his Introduction Paul had talked of defending the gospel, then he goes on to talk of the gospel being proclaimed in his personal circumstances and now he talks of a life that is worthy of the gospel. Proclamation and living out go hand in hand together and are how all of us strive for the faith of the gospel. The gospel is a beautiful song, with profound life giving lyrics and what makes it catchy is the music that goes along with it, which is our lives lived worthy of the gospel. It’s best performed by all of in playing in unison and being in harmony.

 Paul goes on to say we are to do this striving without being frightened of those who oppose us. In fact this is a sign that they will be destroyed but that you will be saved. Paul had already given the church a look at his own attitude to suffering. Yes he was in chains he was at the emperors mercy   but he didn’t let that rob him of his courage or his joy. Paul was seeing one of the elite units in the roman army become aware of the gospel. The gospel was permeating Roman culture and power. They respond to opposition with kindness and exemplary behaviour. There are good examples of this in history… I’ve mentioned it a few times but when the berlin wall came down, massive prayer meeting had had a major part in it and one East German official had said ‘they were ready for riots and revolution, violence and uprising, but they were not ready for prayers and candles.’ The civil rites movement in the US’s use of non-violence showed the brutality and evil of racism up for what it was and was able to overcome it and tear it down. In the end our hope is that it is not the power of the majority or the mighty but of God that is at work and for us.

Paul finishes by saying that the church has not only been given the gift of believing in Jesus Christ but also to suffer for him. This is a hard thing for us to understand because we do not see suffering as a gift. This passage can be skewed to make us think that all the problems we face or suffering we have are gifts from God, which is not true. What it does mean is that suffering opposition and struggles are not a sign of God’s forgetfulness, that he has abandoned us, but rather that just as Christ’s suffering was redemptive and carried out God’s will, when we face opposition and persecution for the sake of the gospel, we are identifying with Christ, and we know his suffering was redemptive, and that is our hope that God can bring his grace and redemption through our persecution an trouble. That was Paul’s experience and it is the church at Philippi and ours as well.

How do we tie all that together and apply it our lives, how do we go from the then and there to the here and now?

Firstly, Just as the church at Philippi was told to live a life worth of the Gospel, so that is Paul’s words to us as well. We face the same challenge, how are we to live as good citizen’s not of our western democracy here in New Zealand but as citizens of the kingdom of God.  Together in Christ!

In the western world we do not face the open persecution and opposition like the church in Philippi did, but in the world today many of our brothers and sister do. In the Philippine, in India, Syria, Africa, communist countries, the middle east.  Paul’s letter gives us ways for us to respond to that. Just as Paul in his situation with his struggles writes to comfort and encourage the church at Philippi, you and I can pray for and where possible communicate with others.

Just like with the Church at Philippi does with Paul, we can share what we have with them to help them to continue proclaiming the gospel. We have newsletters from groups like voices of the Martyrs that advocate for persecuted Christians in our church foyer. Although I went looking for them during the week and sadly I think some of them went out in the working bee.

But also in our own country, we don’t face such overt persecution, but there are more subtle waves that pound against the church and the Christian faith. There is a prevailing tendency to trivialise the spiritual, and what Spiritual things are permissible are not from the Christian faith or organised religion. Christianity is often mocked.  Increasingly Christian notions are excluded from public debate. Christian thinking is marginalised in academic institution, whereas for centuries it has been foundational. And as one commentator says ‘ there are subtle pressures on believers to view their answers to life most profound questions as unimportant and slightly backward. This can lead to feelings of isolation and depression. It may not be wild west coast waves of persecution, but faith can be undermined by the constant lap of these kinds of waves… But Pauls words are equally relevant calling us to unity, not so we can huddle together and hunker in the church like it is a bunker, but that our unity in spirit and action would be a defence for the gospel. Together our love for one another and in acts of kindness and exemplary behaviour opponents might see Christ like love and who knows be drawn to Christ.  That we conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Worthy of the Gospel a Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession...

This Prayer is based around Paul's imperitive to the church at Philippi to live worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). It gives thanks to God for all he has done for us and offers a prayer that we might live our lives in a way that is an expression of God's grace and love.

Lord God we come today to thank you for your great Love
Shown in all the wonderful things you have done for us.
We thank you for all you have made
Diverse environments and the Immense splendour of the night sky,
The delicate and intricate, the beautiful and awe inspiring
For the unique individuals, you have made each of us
We praise you for your loving craftmanship
And pray you would help us to care for, and treat it wisely
And treat each other as fearfully and wonderfully made in your image.

Loving God, full of mercy and grace
 We thank you for your redemptive love shown in Jesus Christ
Jesus stepped humbly down in to our world
proclaimed good news to the poor freedom to captive, sight to blind
He healed the sick, welcomed back the outcast
Died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin, and rose again to life.
We praise you that in this we who were lost in the dark, are found in the light,
And we pray we would live worthy of that great love
That we may show the same grace and love to all around us

Holy God, who choses to dwell in your people by the Holy Spirit
We thank you that you have poured out your Spirit on us all
You comfort us and council us on how to live for Christ
You fill us with  the power we need to witness to Jesus as Lord
You enable and equip us to love and serve as Christ did.
Walking with the Holy Spirit you produce Christ honouring fruit in us
We praise you for your abiding presence with and within us
We pray that we may know more of you each day
We pray as the spirit moves we may grow to maturity in faith and love 

Gracious Lord, we come today aware of our need for you
Full of thanks and praise for you and your love for us
Fully aware of our failings and brokenness
We acknowledge that we have done wrong
That we have left undone the good you call us to do
That we have not loved as you have loved us
We thank you that you are  just and faithful and hear our confession
We pray that you would forgive us and wipe the slate clean
We humbly hear you gracious words “you are forgiven”

Father God, who sent us your Son, who sends the Holy Spirit
In response to your love we dedicate ourselves afresh today
We open ourselves up afresh to you
Fill us we pray with your Holy Spirit
Lead us and teach us to walk in your ways
Reenergise our love in Christ and witness to Christ
We praise you Father, Son and Holy Spirit for hearing our pray
We ask that you would help us to live worth of your gospel
All glory and Honour to you God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Paul gives two Reasons to Rejoice, even in chains and facing an uncertain future: The certainty of the gospel unchained (Philippians 1:12-26)

When we were young one of the things we had to do after Christmas and our birthdays was sit down and write thank you letters to the various distant relatives who’d sent us a card and some money. They were people we didn’t really know that we’d only seen in old faded black and white photographs or met once or twice or maybe seen at family gathering every other year or four. So I remember asking my mum what do you say after you’ve written the introduction stuff. Dear Auntie Petunia or Uncle Bob, I’m writing to say thank you for the lovely birthday/Christmas present. Thanks, you very much.’ My mom would say well why don’t you tell them about what you are doing, about what year you are in at school, what are your interests and that sort of thing… Let them know what is happening in your life. Which we did, I don’t think there was ever more than a stilted line or two. I know it was never anything profound. The letters never got past just the superficial stuff and I doubt whether they were preserved for posterity.  

In the passage, we had read out to us today Paul after his Christ filled introduction tells the church at Philippi about what is going on in his life. They had sent him a gift to support him in prison and he lets them know what has happened, where he is now and the uncertainty of his future. In this we have a window into Pauls experiences and mind, but also because of who Paul is we are given an example of true Christian living in the face of suffering and uncertainty. A statement of principle to guide all the saints, the church in Philippi way back then and there, and us, as God’s people, here and now.

This winter we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter he wrote to thank them for their support and prayers. A letter that he writes to encourage them to stand firm in the faith in the face of external persecution and false teaching within. A letter that uses the word joy sixteen times and encourages the church to rejoice because of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing and can be trusted to do in the future. That in Christ we can know Joy regardless of the circumstance. In the passage, we are looking at day, Paul gives two reasons he rejoices in the face of suffering: while he is in chains the gospel is unchained, Jesus Christ is being proclaimed, and while his future is uncertain, whether he lives or dies he is certain it is held in Christ.

Paul starts by saying what has happened to him in the past has served to advance the gospel. We know form the book of Acts of the things that Paul has endured and the suffering he has faced, and in those situations the gospel has been advanced. People have heard the gospel message. People have encountered Jesus Christ and become his disciples, there have been many who have been healed and set free in Christ. We know Paul’s journey to imprisonment in Rome. In Acts 21 we see that Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and falsely accused of taking a gentile into the temple. Even as he is being arrested and guarded by roman soldiers he gives his testimony to the crowds gathered. He speaks to the Jewish governing body the Sanhedrin and to the Roman officials. He is a Roman citizen so he makes an appeal to have his case heard by the Emperor, and is transported to Rome. We read of his ship wreck and the founding of the church in Malta as a result. Acts finishes with Paul in house arrest in Rome awaiting his hearing before the Emperor. He can look back at all these things that have happened in the past and see that God has used them to further the gospel

That is the confidence that you and I have as well, that if we serve Christ and are about his business that God can use the ups and downs in our life to further the gospel. The good times and the tough times for the furthering of his Kingdom. When we were in Napier I had a suspicious possibly cancerous lump on my leg removed. I spent about a week in hospital lying on my back unable to move in case I disturbed the skin graft on my leg. I was in a hospital room with four other men and you know in the evenings we had some of the best conversations I’ve ever had with non-Christians about the faith and I got to share the Christian faith with them in a way I don’t think would have been possible in everyday life. They may not have come to faith at that moment but I know that the Holy Spirit gave each of them a nudge in a Christ-ward direction. God can use what has happened in our past both the good and the bad for the sake of the gospel. It can be used for the glory of God.

Then Paul turns to talk of his present situation.  In our minds, we think of prison as punishment for wrong doing, but in this case Paul could be said to be on remand awaiting trial. He is waiting to have his case heard before the emperor. He s under house arrest and is chained all the time between two guards, soldiers form the prestigious Praetorian guard. He is not able to leave his place of residence but he is allowed to have visitors, and meets with those whom Acts tell us are with him, like timothy and even Luke, and also people from the fledgling church in Rome and from the end of Acts we see also the local Jews as well. Maybe we are used to the legal system taking a long time and it seems Paul has a two or more year wait for his audience with Caesar.

From this passage also we can see that Paul’s reception in Rome seems not to have been totally warm from the Church and there are groups within the church who do not regard Paul highly as an apostle, it maybe a case of jealousy, that this big wig has turned up on their patch, we don’t know but this is adding to Paul’s suffering. You see very often in the Psalms of David, that David’s suffering is often amplified by peoples gossiping and speaking ill of him. Maybe you’ve experienced that as people have talked about what you are facing and how you are dealing with it behind your back.

Yet even amidst this waiting period, this period of captivity and inactivity Paul rejoices. While he is in chains the gospel is unchained. He maybe a captive but all day everyday he has a captive audience, who listen to his prayers, his meeting with Christian brothers and sisters and his speaking with the Jews about Christ. Who when they are alone with Paul he speaks with and shares his faith, prays for them and their families. Paul reports that Jesus Christ has become known amongst the whole palace guard. It’s very subversive but those who are tasked with protecting Caesar as Lord are coming to know ‘Jesus as Lord’. God is using Paul’s captivity to reach into a sphere of Roman society that it may well have been impossible to reach any other way.

Paul rejoices that while he is in chains, the gospel is unchained, because of his courage the church around him is encouraged more to speak and share and proclaim Jesus Christ. It’s not the leaders that Paul sees only doing this but rather it is the people who are inspired to talk of their faith. Maybe Paul being in Rome has been a catalyst for people to inquire about the Christian faith. I’ve had a lot of discussions with non-Christians about the faith because of Brian Tamaki. For a while there Brian got lots of stick from the media, when people find out I’m a minister they want to know what I think of him and what really is the heart of Christianity. I’m sure Brian does not like the adverse publicity but its opened doors for the gospel. Yes I know it has hardened a few as well.  Even says Paul those whose motive are wrong, who are wanting to compete with Paul are preaching the gospel.  These are the things that make Paul rejoice.

Richard Wurmbrand was imprisoned for many years under the communist and Ceausescu  regime in Romania, he suffered torture, illness, physical and phycological pain. Yet during that time his imprisonment encouraged the church outside to continue and he witnessed to many of the prisoners who were with him in prison, seeing them come to the Lord. AS the regime continued and various factions fell out of favour, Wurmbrand found himself sharing his cell with the people who had tormented him, prosecuted him and even tortured him and was able to speak with them and share Christ’s love.  When he was released he has influenced many Christians by his testimony of God’s grace and love for enemies. In communist China one of the ways in which the gospel spread was through the witness of Christians in prisons and labour camps. They were the only ones the guards could trust to shave them, as they knew they could be trusted not to cut their throats. The Christians would give up their precious eggs a major source of protein to give to the prisoners in the infirmary. Even in Egypt today as Christian face persecution and death at the hands of Islamic extremists, their willingness to forgive their neighbour has meant that young Muslim’s men are seeing Islam killing people and destroying villages and they don’t want that kind of religion and are starting to ask questions of the Christian faith. There is a real challenge for us as well to be prepared to step outside the western ideology of materialism and look at a different way of living and we will see the same thing, but as long as we continue to be chained to the same things as our neighbours they won’t see the gospel unchained.

Finally Paul looks to his uncertain future, not with trepidation but continuing to rejoice.  His case has been on appeal to the emperor and his life is literally in the emperor hand. Will he see Pauls case as a squabble amongst religious factions or will he see it as a threat to the empire, saying Jesus is Lord is a very political statement. It is to claim another king, to claim to be part of a different kingdom. Will he live or will he die? Paul faces that with the certainty of the unchained gospel.

He knows that with the prayers of the saints and the provision of the Holy Spirit that God whatever happens will turn out for his deliverance. The word deliverance can mean that he will be saved from his current predicament. It is the confidence that the God who saved Daniel  from the Lion’s den and who saved Shadrack,  Meshach and Abendigo from the fiery furnace can deliver him from the emperor. The situation is the same their wholehearted devotion to the heavenly king, puts them at odds with the realms of this world.  Pauls certainty is more than just a divine get out of jail free card  it is a certain hope that God has provided for his full salvation. He is forgiven and bought into relationship with God through Christ, it is God’s will that will prevail in this situation. Whether it is death or continuing living he knows it means for him Christ. To die is to go and be with his saviour face to face, to continue living is to know and be known By Christ. To continue living is to continue to work for and with Christ to build up the Church. Either way Paul’s desire is to Glorify God in his body, in death and in life. In that certain future through Paul his death or his life that the gospel will continue to be unchained and do God’s work of redemption and restoration.

This is the joy filled  attitude that Paul demonstrates for the Church to follow, the church in Philippi that they can find joy in Christ trusting him to complete his work in them. This is the attitude he offers them that in whatever circumstance they face they can have a certain hope, confidence in Christ.

This is the joy filled attitude that Paul models for you and I as well. We can rejoice in the face of past suffering, present challenges and sorrow and future uncertainty because of the certainty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That he who started a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of the Lord as Paul had told the church in his prayer of thanksgiving for them in Philippians 1:6. The certainty he showed them in his own life, facing an uncertain future.  

This is the joy filled  hope we have that whatever chains us up and tried to hold us down, the gospel is unchained. It is able to achieve what God desires. Illness, age, social standing, the things from the past that try and hold on to us and drag us down, our own internal dialogue, that image we see of ourselves, real life persecution and opposition that try and chain us, none of them can chain the gospel down to do its work in us, to do Christ’s work through us… The gospel is unchained. It will continue to bear fruit, and we can rejoice in that.

This is the Joy filled challenge to you and I , that in all the circumstances we find ourselves in we would follow Paul’s example and desire that Christ might be glorified in our body. That brings it down to a very practical level, in hands that reach out with Christ’s love, feet that are willing to go to the places God calls us to, hearts open enough to a world God loves,  the places of ease and the places where we face constraints and uncertainty, a voice that speaks and tells of what we know. In how we live and in how we die, both to ourselves as we allow The things of this world to fade in comparison to the great joy of knowing Jesus Christ and as we give our lives in service to him. That the thank you letter we write with our lives to Christ might be full of rejoicing that Christ proclaimed.