Sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

Here’s the second in my mini-series on our church’s vision, looking especially at Colossians 3:12-17.

There’s a stereotype that Christian ethics is just about “how great it would be to be nice to people for a change”. But as we consider our statement about what we are about as a church, focusing on the line “Growing together as the family of God”, I think it would be helpful to look at Colossians 3:12-17, one of the classic “be nice to people” passages, and see why it isn’t just about being nice to each other.

  1. It is rooted in what God has done for us. It begins with “therefore” – looking back to chapters 1 and 2. Specifically, that we are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved – therefore we don’t need to try to impress others or bolster our own sense of identity, and we can look at each other as chosen, holy and dearly loved too – hence all the qualities that follow are about our attitudes to other people.

We see the same in v14, 15, 16 and 17 – it’s all about responding to what God has done for us. Paul’s argument is “this is who God is; this is what he has done for us; this is who he has called us to be. Therefore this is how we should live.” So if we want to grow in those qualities, we do so by coming back to what God has done for us and for others.

  • It recognises that it is hard. v12-13 shows it as a deliberate process, with lots of elements to pay attention to – like getting dressed up really smartly for church. In v13, we see that it is often difficult and we need to “bear with each other” and show grace to each other, just as God does to us.

That doesn’t mean for a second that we just ignore sin or fail to speak out to protect others; it means that even when we correct and discipline people, it is done in a genuine spirit of love and grace, just as God does with us.

  • It’s all about Jesus. It’s about present relationship with him. So in v12-14, our character comes to reflect Jesus’ character more and more. In v15 we let peace rule – that’s not the peace of sweeping things under the carpet, it’s the peace of submitting it all to Christ who loves us. It’s the word of Christ too in v16, that we’re called to let dwell in us and transform us, leading us to be able to teach and admonish one another.

How do you feel about sharing God’s word with other Christians? Maybe it’s saying something that helped us in the last week, or something we were struck by as we read the Bible. Maybe it’s asking questions about something we don’t understand, or helping other people understand when they ask us. That’s partly why homegroups are really important – it’s hard to do the horizontal dimension of church well with current restrictions.

That’s especially true when it comes to singing. Our songs are meant to be so saturated with the Bible that singing them is sharing God’s word with people (v16). It’s meant to be a corporate activity of together offering our thanks and praise to God, so that the word of God dwells among us as well as with us, and we can’t do it together at the moment.

It’s also about doing everything in Jesus’ name – doing them as his representatives in this world. Everything we do, whether it is picking up litter on a Saturday morning or getting a vaccination to protect other members of society, or trying to shop more ethically, we do it as representatives of Jesus, as people who show the world what he is like.

Sermon on Romans 8:22-27

Yesterday was Pentecost, but I know that lots of people are having a really hard time at the moment, so I preached on (some of) what difference the Holy Spirit makes to those who are going through difficulties in the present. Here’s a summary:

What difference does the Holy Spirit make to us when things aren’t going so well?  When so many people are struggling with so many different things, when the world is still being ravaged by a pandemic and with all the environmental problems being largely ignored? This section of Romans 8 is a great help, because in this passage we see that:

Creation groans v22. It really does! And this idea of groaning is key to understanding the passage – the NCV translates it “waiting with pain”. Creation groans because it has hope – it is looking forwards to being brought into the glorious freedom of the kingdom of God, as v21 puts it. It is like childbirth – it’s painful; it’s difficult; but it is going somewhere. When the church is fulfilling its purpose properly, it will lead to the restoration of the natural world – God’s first task for humanity was to look after the garden and take care of it. But we aren’t fully there yet, this world is still fallen, and so creation groans. But it doesn’t groan as it heads down the drain to destruction, like so many prophets of doom say. This world suffers, but it does so heading towards a full and wonderful restoration in the future. We mourn for what is being lost, but not as those who have no hope.

We groan v23. We wait with pain as well. Why? Because we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are adopted as God’s children, but we are still waiting for that to be fulfilled, for us to be living as fully his children. Pentecost was the Jewish festival of firstfruits – they celebrated the first bit of the harvest, before the rest came in. And our future hope expresses itself in groaning as we long for things to change. So we groan, not in despair but in longing, and we also wait patiently. Notice that it’s both / and. And as we grow as Christians, even as we grow in joy and holiness we see both our fallenness and the future glory more and more clearly, and that increases our sense of groaning too!

The Holy Spirit groans v26. We’re told that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. The word “helps” is literally the word for someone who comes along and takes the other end of a heavy load with you. God with us comes and joins us in our groaning, in our feeling the weight of our burdens at this present time, and he enables us to lift them, and prays for us and with us. Sometimes there aren’t words to say what we are feeling or want to say. I know that many of us are there at the moment. And God knows. God knows the mind of the Spirit – even when it’s something that God himself cannot put into words because words are just inadequate, he knows it and he hears it. The Holy Spirit groans for us and with us. He has not left us as orphans – he has come to us.

So don’t for a moment think that God has abandoned us in our present suffering and challenges and difficulties. No; he is with us, he feels it right along with us, and he helps us carry it until he brings us safely home. So when you are feeling beyond yourself and you don’t know what words to pray, don’t worry about that. Just take time with God, without words if needed, and the Spirit bears it with us, and prays to our Father for us and with us with groans that words cannot express. And he knows and he hears and he cares. Our life takes on the shape of the life of Jesus – glory follows suffering. Here’s Romans 8:14-17.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Sermon on Acts 11:19-30

The pace of change in our society at the moment can be dizzying. But there have been times in the past when similar change has happened, and in today’s passage we see how God prepares his church to cope with one of them.

There are three huge challenges about to hit the church, which the apostles have not seen coming, and weren’t equipped to deal with:

  • Language – all the apostles speak Aramaic as a first language – almost no Gentiles do, and the Gentiles have started coming to faith.
  • Location – Jerusalem (HQ of the church) is central for Jews, but for Gentiles it is a hard-to-reach racist backwater.
  • Liberty – the authorities in Jerusalem were about to turn dramatically against the Christian community there.

But God has seen the challenges coming, and prepares his church for the next leg of the race; Jerusalem will need to hand the baton on. We looked at three ways he prepares his church:

  1. A New Place – Antioch. It was one of the biggest cities in the world (bigger then than Nottingham is now), well-connected, Greek-speaking, with a big Jewish minority, but also probably further from home than any of the apostles had ever been. The church there was started by ethnically Jewish refugees from Jerusalem rather than by the apostles. It’s also God’s chosen place for the next stage of the global expansion of the church. All of Paul’s missionary journeys will begin in Antioch, and it’s going to be a key hub for the church for hundreds of years, whereas in 25 years’ time, Jerusalem will be a heap of ruins.

So what does this mean for us? In a changing world, we need to be careful what we get attached to in the church. All the places Jesus had been and even the language he spoke are about to become marginal in the church. It’s great news for us who live a long way away and who speak English rather than Aramaic. But it’s also discomforting because it reminds us that God’s kingdom is much bigger than our building, Bible translations or preferred styles.

We need to hold on to what doesn’t change. And here that’s God, who is still at work in the world and in his church. And that’s the truth of his word, whichever language we read it in, and his wonderful work by his Son and his Spirit.

2. New People – Barnabas and Saul. The apostles are still the key official witnesses to what Jesus did and said. But when they hear about the church in Antioch, they don’t go and visit themselves, like they did with churches nearer to home. Instead, they send Barnabas, who spoke Greek as a first language (Acts 4:36) and had probably even been to Antioch before. But they also pick him because he’s a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And so Barnabas sees what God is doing in Antioch, rejoices in it, and encourages them. He doesn’t make it all about him; he made it his business to resource and encourage the church in what they were already doing.

The best people to reach folk are those who are already close to them – you are the best people to reach the contexts that God has put you in – your families and places of work and friendship groups. The purpose of the church and of church leaders is to encourage and resource you in that, and I’d love to know how I can be doing that better!

But it’s not just Barnabas there. He goes to find Saul too. The apostles picked Barnabas; Barnabas invested in Saul. We shouldn’t seek to raise up leaders (or raise children) who are just like us; we should seek to raise up people from their generations and cultures who can share Jesus with those cultures.

3. New provision. In v27-30, the church in Antioch hears about a coming famine, and decides to send aid to the church in Judea and Jerusalem – it shows they are no longer dependent on Jerusalem, but instead able and willing to support the church there. They are ready to take the lead.

So what do we do when we face up to a changing world?

We hold onto God. He has navigated his church safely through 2,000 years of change. He knows exactly what he is doing. We need to be willing to let go of the things that will be shaken; the Jerusalems. And hold onto God who never changes, onto his Word, onto his Son who died in our places so that we can be accepted and forgiven, and onto his Spirit, who fills our hearts and equips us to live for him in this world.

Can We Trust the New Testament?

I recently did an evening-long seminar on this topic. I’ve split my material up into three chunks for ease of listening. Here they are.

Part 1: Can we trust that the New Testament that we have today is as it was originally written?

Part 2: Can we trust that New Testament as originally written is accurate and reliable?

Part 3: Can we trust that the New Testament contains the right books, and not the wrong ones? What about the Gospel of Thomas, and so on?

These talks were originally given at Advance, run by Chrysolis Romania.

Dealing with Discrimination

Yesterday, our sermon series through Acts reached Acts 11:1-18, and I had a particular focus on dealing with discrimination in the church.

Two things really surprised me in this passage:

  • The amount of repetition, when Luke is usually very economical.
  • The ridiculous prejudice in v3 – they should have celebrated.

I suspect those are two sides of the same coin – Luke repeats himself so much because this is important, and we need to hear it again and again because we are prone to prejudice too. And I think the passage gives us several pointers for how we can confront prejudice in ourselves and in the church.

First, don’t ignore it. Saying nothing when we encounter prejudice is far too easy. I know I’ve been guilty of it far too many times. But saying nothing enables the prejudice to continue, and makes us complicit in it. In the passage, Peter doesn’t just laugh it off or make a joke of it. He confronts their prejudice, and he does so really effectively, as we’ll see.

Second, learn to see things from other points of view. In last week’s passage, the penny finally dropped for Peter in v34 when he heard Cornelius’s story. In this week’s passage, Peter changes the minds of the church in Jerusalem by telling them his story. Stories can be so helpful at dismantling prejudice (e.g. Joshua 22).

This is especially true with racism. We can miss racism in our society simply because it isn’t our experience. But if my brother or sister in Christ is wounded by an unfairness of which I’m simply unaware, I must accept at least the possibility of there being a real problem. Just because I’m unaware of a problem, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

Third, pay attention to what God is doing. Because as ever, God is the hero of this passage. God is the one who does the hard work in breaking down discrimination and prejudice.

Peter points out four things that God did to break his prejudice:

  1. A divine vision v4-10, which was repeated so that Peter got the message.
  2. A divine command in v11-12 – to go to the Roman town of Caesarea.
  3. Divine preparation in v13-14. God has also been at work with Cornelius.
  4. Divine action v15-17. God sends the Holy Spirit, and Cornelius and friends respond just like Peter and co did at Pentecost. This doesn’t happen to everyone who receives the Spirit – it’s not what happened with the Ethiopian Eunuch, or with Saul. It’s a sign for Peter and the other Christians, so that they know that these people really have come to faith in Jesus, and that God really has given them his Spirit.

And yet it’s amazing how often we do oppose God, especially those of us who like systems and structures and rules, because our structures will exclude some people, and God doesn’t follow human rules. We need to remember that we are in Cornelius’s position in this passage. God has broken down the barriers so that we can be included in his people. We have been saved by his grace, so let’s show that grace to others as well.

What is going on in Acts 9:19-31?

Last Sunday, I was preaching on Acts 9:19-31. It’s an odd passage in some ways; I’ve heard dozens of sermons on the conversion of Saul in v1-18, but hardly any on his early ministry in v19-31. And the sermons I have heard on it, and almost all the commentaries I’ve read (Loveday Alexander being the exception), don’t seem to address some of the striking features about the passage.

  • Acts likes to tell us about church growth. But there are no references to it in Saul’s early ministry; the only reference is once he has left the area. Saul is sent elsewhere; then the church grows in the region he has left.
  • When Paul looks back on these events in 2 Corinthians 11, he sees the escape from Damascus as seemingly his most humiliating moment. Why does Luke record it?
  • Why does Luke record that the opposition in Damascus was from “the Jews”, whereas Paul in 2 Cor says it was from the (non-Jewish) governor? I know it’s easy to reconcile the two, but why the difference in emphasis?
  • In Galatians 1, Paul says that he spent time in Arabia (i.e. the region around but not including Damascus) during this period. Why does Luke give the impression he stayed in Damascus?

I think the solution is that Luke is depicting Saul’s ministry here as solely to the Jews, and a failure. There’s already the (probable) dramatic irony that we know that Saul is meant to go to the Gentiles from v15, but Saul doesn’t seem to have got that memo.

And yet every time he speaks to the Jews, he is opposed and even threatened with death. He seems to have the effect of causing hostility rather than conversions. He doesn’t actually start preaching to the Gentiles until 13:46, and then we immediately see people coming to faith – the opposition from his own people coupled with his passion for preaching the gospel eventually breaks his jingoism, and he becomes the strongest advocate of full Gentile inclusion.

Anyway, this is what I did with the passage (first version; improved version was in person).